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4-H finds a new stall in Portland's urban corral

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JIM CLARK - 4-H member Jesse Hartung, 13, places a harness on a horse before going for a ride at Parkman Boarding Facility in Gresham.4-H isn’t your country cousin Fern’s club any more, at least in Portland.

The venerable youth program — scrapped in Multnomah County after 2002 budget cuts— is making a comeback here and focusing on city slickers. Conceived more than a century ago as a way to modernize farming practices by targeting farm children, 4-H is now stressing environmental stewardship and science themes.

The 4-H club at Joseph L. Meek Professional Tech High School in Northeast Portland is studying remotely operated vehicles and will deploy them for underwater environmental monitoring at the Columbia Slough.

4-H club members at David Douglas High School in East Portland are learning about health sciences careers.

Highland Christian Center, a black congregation in Northeast Portland, is forming a 4-H club focused on cooking and food, using the church kitchen for its clubhouse.

When Multnomah County pulled the plug on 4-H funding in 2002, there were about 75 clubs in the county serving several thousand members, says Maureen Hosty, an Oregon State University Extension faculty member who works with area 4-H clubs. The Portland office was closed and all the clubs disbanded, although some youths joined 4-H clubs in neighboring counties.

In 2009, 4-H started to resuscitate the county program, based out of donated office space at Sunnyside Environmental School in Southeast Portland, and operating with community grants and other outside funding. Now there are about 15 to 20 clubs in the county serving about 180 youths, Hosty says, and she hopes to double that number this year.

There also has been a revival in more traditional 4-H clubs, which often revolve around preparing animals for showings at county and state fairs. A Corbett club works with goats, livestock, sheep and turkeys. A Gresham club specializes in horses.

Several clubs meet at Southwest Portland’s Alpenrose Dairy, including the Ewetopia (ewes) and Hens and Hares clubs.

Coming full circle

University extension services date back to Abraham Lincoln’s administration, Hosty says, when Congress funded land grant universities with a mandate to go beyond education for the elite and wealthy.

“They wanted to teach new ways of growing corn, but the farmers weren’t coming to the workshops,” she says.

So the predecessor of 4-H, which stands for head, heart, hands and health, was founded in 1902, as a way to get farmers’ children involved, and introduce new ways of thinking into farm communities. Eventually, 4-H became an avenue to reach the adults.

Ironically, the nation’s first urban 4-H program began in Portland in 1913, Hosty says. 4-H clubs in Portland Public Schools created Victory Gardens, formed to ease pressure on the food supply during World War I.

Now 4-H is coming full circle here. Its Sustainable Schools and Wildlife Stewards programs are training a cadre of parents to lead 4-H clubs revolving around school gardens. Often a teacher or parent who started a school garden will burn out, move on or lose enthusiasm, Hosty says. 4-H steps in to help sustain the gardens, in part by offering free 25- to 30-hour training courses for parent volunteers. Instruction comes from OSU Extension faculty, the Master Gardener program and school food and nutrition experts.

There are now more than three dozen Wildlife Stewards programs in Oregon schools, mostly in the Portland area.

The local 4-H also offers a Wildlife Stewards summer camp in Salem and recently created a new summer day camp at Portland’s Forest Park, which stresses local ecosystems.

Rural is now cool

Another irony is that just as 4-H focuses more on urban youth and new approaches to attract them, traditional 4-H subject matter is finding growing appeal in the city.

“Traditional 4-H is really big,” Hosty says. “People have a yearning to get connected with agriculture and these homesteading skills, such as sewing and canning and soapmaking.”

All the youths in the Gresham 4-H horse club come from suburban “tract homes,” not country homes, says Cynthia Hickox, volunteer club leader.

Emma Fitzgerald, a freshman at St. Mary’s Academy in downtown Portland, didn’t want to join Girl Scouts, because she didn’t think it was fair that the Boy Scouts got to “do all the cool stuff.”

In seventh grade, she discovered 4-H. First she joined the Hens and Hares club because she wanted to raise chickens, and wound up showing them at the county fair. Then she joined the Ewetopia club. She also entered sewing projects in the county fair, and started doing photography and fly fishing. Last year she started learning about alpacas. She’s moving into 4-H’s teen leadership program and helped run the club’s Storybook Lane project, a wintertime animal exhibit at Alpenrose Dairy.

“I’ve turned into a country person,” says Fitzgerald, who lives near Wilson High School in Southwest Portland. “I’d prefer living out in the country.”

Hands-on academics

4-H is often the sole youth development program in some rural areas, says Pat Willis, an OSU Extension faculty member who works with 4-H in Washington and Multnomah counties. But his colleagues once counted 70 different youth organizations available in the metro area.

That meant it had to distinguish itself, despite being, as 4-H boasts, the largest youth development program in the nation, with clubs in every county in every state.

What sets 4-H apart is its tie to university extension services.

“All of our curriculum and training is research-based. It comes out of the university,” Hosty says.

The focus is on hands-on learning that uses a “science inquiry model” says Stacey Sowders, a 4-H program coordinator based in Hillsboro. “It’s really about consistent contact with caring adults.”

4-H provides free training and educational materials for adult volunteers who lead clubs.

“We know what we do works,” Willis says, “because we’re always evaluating, always tweaking to make sure we’re doing things the best way possible.”

4-H also allows youth to get involved in something in an intense way, often a single subject that can engross them for years, such as how to groom and train horses.

It’s interesting seeing how the urban and rural youth approach things differently, says Aliesje King, who works with 4-H’s Wildlife Stewards program in Multnomah County, and enjoyed 4-H growing up.

Urban clubs are more interested in environmental sustainability, King says. They might want to raise chickens as pets, or to get their eggs, not for chicken meat.

Robin Hart, a Southwest Portland mom who led a 4-H club last year focused on lambs, says it was traumatic to see the lambs they raised auctioned off to be eaten. “It was pretty hard on all of us,” she says.

Elizabeth Smith, an educational program assistant who works with 4-H clubs at Alpenrose Dairy, wants to create new clubs in gardening, painting and archery, once she can round up the adult volunteers. She recently recruited Hart to lead an archery club.

There’s a lot of interest now in archery, especially among girls, perhaps inspired by the “Hunger Games” movie, Hart says. Though she doesn’t know much about archery, she knows 4-H will provide training. She loves what the program, especially the focus on showing at fairs, has done for her sons and other members of the clubs she’s led.

If more leaders are recruited, Hosty says, club members will follow.

Hot topics, she says, include original American culture, art, cowboy and cowgirl themes, cooking and baking with Northwest foods, urban farming, dog training, archery, handicrafts, fishing, shooting sports, bicycles, all-terrain vehicles, photography and videography, renewable energy and other subjects.

If someone has an idea to lead a club around, 4-H is open to it, she says.