WILLCOX — The 4-H program in Willcox ceased operations in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic due to low membership rates. Now, with help from two visionary minds, it looks to rebuild.

Those two minds belong to Peter Hooper and Mekenna Smith.

Growing up in New England, Hooper, associate area agent, 4-H, originally thought of the 4-H program as being related to Future Farmers of America.

“That was my understanding,” Hooper said. “4-H was basically, the way I had it in my head, 4-H was a feeder program for FFA. That’s a common misconception that people have of 4-H, because they see kids with their animals at the fair and they know that FFA in high schools does the same sort of thing. Therefore 4-H is kind of like a feeder program for FFA.

“Actually, 4-H is so much more.”

Smith said, “How it works is there is this program called clover buds, but they’re not really involved in the program. They’re the little kids. So they can do art projects. They just can’t show livestock. They can do some small animals, but once you hit fourth grade you can show on anything you want in 4-H.”

In 2020

“Last year was a tough year for us, especially in Cochise County 4-H,” Hooper said.

“We had to move everything to a virtual engagement at the behest of the University of Arizona in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot of folks had a tough time with that, for not having (any) high-quality kind of activity. For not being comfortable with presenting information online or receiving information online.

“A lot of the folks who are involved in 4-H, they live on ranches and farms where they’re already distanced from other folks. So it was tough for a lot of folks to look at the way that 4-H responded to the pandemic and (say) this is something I can get behind.”

“I think Willcox is in a similar, but different situation,” Smith added. “The hard part about Willcox is (that) we have another event called the Expo. 4-H kind of just went away when the Expo came about just in Willcox.”

Hooper said 4-H is bringing science to bear on practical issues elated to positive youth development.

“We would teach kids about things that they could do to raise animals more efficiently,” Hooper said. “To raise them to be healthier and stronger. So that when they go (the) market, they’re market(ing) a better product. That’s something we’ve focused on throughout.”

As a nonprofit foundation, a lot of 4-H funding comes from donations. The University of Arizona is this group’s sponsoring university.

“Every land grant university (like UA) has a community outreach program called ‘cooperative extension,’ “ Hooper said.

“So in every county in Arizona we have a cooperative extension office that runs programs in several different areas. In agriculture, horticulture, viticulture. We have folks who focus on water. Folks who focus on family and consumer sciences. Family consumer health sciences. 4-H is the positive youth development program for cooperative extension.”

4-H projects

“When you think about 4-H, we have a mission mandate from the department of agriculture,” Hooper said. “Our mission mandate includes three different areas. Those areas are civic engagement and leadership, STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathmatics) and agriculture, as well as healthy living. Healthy living we’re talking about the whole self.

“So we’re talking about eating healthy. Making healthy choices. Being responsible with your money management and social emotional health as well. STEM can be anything the kids are working with.”

Hooper said 4-H can provide a program to match almost anything a kid has interest in. The only requirement is a caring adult volunteer who’s willing to get certified as a 4-H volunteer by the University of Arizona.

“It could be teachers,” Hooper said. “It can be anybody with some free time. They want to be able to share that free time with kids and help them out.”

Passing it down

“I am a fourth generation 4-H’er,” Smith said. “My great-grandparents were heavily involved in 4-H. My parents actually were leaders as well. We were involved in 4-H that way.

“Then I hit of age. I entered 4-H (in) my fourth grade year and I competed until I aged out.”

Smith grew up in Crook County, Oregon, and attended the University of Oregon. It was there she restarted her 4-H experience.

“For me, what inspired me to go back actually started in 2014,” she said. “I was living in Eugene, Oregon. I think family kind of inspired me to go back and be a leader, because it’s a lot of fun. I just enjoy working with the kids.

In Eugene, Oregon, their program was kind of in a similar situation that Willcox is in, except Eugene, they ran out of money. 4-H didn’t have any funding, so the programs died. That was in I think 2010 or something. So around 2014 they started trying to revive 4-H again.

“Their dog program was small. So I went ahead and became a leader and helped them rebuild their dog programm which was a lot of fun.”

Rebuilding the club

“We are super excited that (in 2022) across the state we will not have a fee associated with joining 4-H,” Hooper said. Their won’t be a required membership fee. Right now to participate in 4-H in Cochise County it costs $25 a year.

Unable to find a volunteer willing to run the club, the Willcox club has been on hiatus. That’s why Smith was hired, and she’s restarting the 4-H program in Willcox with her dog project, focusing on canine obedience, showmanship and dog health.

“I like to think of this as our rebuilding year, starting in October,” Hooper said. “I’m really excited about some of the things that Mekenna’s gonna be able to get moving in Willcox.”

Goals of 4-H

“Some of the long term outcomes that we’re looking to be able to provide for kids (are) be(ing) able to show academic or vocational success by participating in our program, Hooper said. “That they’ll be actively engaged in civic opportunities. That they will be employable. That they will have economic stability as adults.

“They’ll demonstrate happiness and well-being. Doing what we can do to help kids thrive.”

Any adult interested in getting involved with 4-H should reach out to hooperp@arizona.edu.