For 126 Arkansas youths, their six-day summer camp was more than just campfires, swimming and hiking.
“They had an awakening moment,” said Jef Ferguson, program coordinator of Arkansas 4-H Mentoring Program for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
The 4-H Citizenship and Leadership camp held in late June at the C.A. Vines Arkansas 4-H Center in Ferndale was part of a yearlong collaborative initiative between the 4-H Youth Development and the Community and Economic Development at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service.
It was fueled by general improvement funds allocated by legislators.
The citizenship/leadership project had several components: the summer camp that drew youths from all over the state, county-scale educational projects and the Month of Service, in which 4-H members across Arkansas perform dozens of community service activities including food drives and roadway cleanup during October.
“People need to learn about citizenship and leadership at a younger age.”
— Stacey McCullough, Director of the Public Policy Center
Although the final numbers weren’t going to be tallied until the end of 2014, organizers were expecting more than 4,200 youths from 42 of the state’s 75 counties to be part of the wide-ranging program, plus those youths who were performing activities during the Month of Service.
Out of their bubbles
The June camp, offered for free to participants, drew 13- to 17-year-olds from all over Arkansas from urban and rural communities. They spent their first afternoon teaming up for different leadership and team-building activities. “It gets them out of their bubbles,” Ferguson said.
They would need to be out of those bubbles for the rest of the week.
“People need to learn about citizenship and leadership at a younger age,” said Stacey McCullough, director of the Public Policy Center for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “Becoming an engaged citizen and learning to step out of your comfort zone early in life is important because it can be more challenging to do for the first time as an adult.”
All of the camp’s activities closely followed the 4-H “learn by doing” motto.
“Doing” included following in the footsteps of elected officials, developing legislation and trying to get it passed by their peers.
“They elected a speaker for their mock legislative body and proposed bills that were debated first in committees and then in a general assembly. Some failed, some passed,” Ferguson said.
The youth were coached by state lawmakers and others holding government positions. The speakers taught the youths what it means to be a public servant and have their voices heard even if they’re still teenagers, said Jackson Alexander, fund development intern for the C. A. Vines Arkansas 4-H Center, who attended part of the camp.
“This was a terrific opportunity for youth, not just to learn the workings behind stories they see in the headlines, but also take part in the process themselves,” said Noah Washburn, 4-H Youth development program director for University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.
Earlier in the summer, 4-Hers at the three district O-Ramas around the state went through the voting process from registration to using real voting machines to elect their leaders.
The camp included “The Citizenship Race,” an adaptation of TV’s “The Amazing Race.” Teams of three or four moved through stations where they had to answer questions about citizenship. In order for them to move to the next station, they needed to get all the answers correct.
The campers toured the state Capitol building, Justice Building and Clinton Presidential Library and performed a service project at Boyle Park in Little Rock picking up trash, raking leaves and making other improvements to make sure the park was much better than when they got there, Ferguson said.
Continuing education in the counties
The wide-ranging program also funded county-level learning opportunities. In Boone County, 4-H members participated in 4-H Splash, a citizenship program, on July 17. Youth toured the county courthouse and participated in a community service project and a workshop on the types of government.
The 4-H members visited with Crystal Graddy, Boone County Clerk, where they learned about the voting process and heard presentations from the county treasurer, circuit clerk and the county judge’s office.
Nita Cooper, Boone County extension staff chair, said “we wanted our youth to not only understand the importance of voting, but also the importance of having someone be able to step into the roles of county clerk, or judge or quorum court member in the future.”
“The presentation by Crystal Graddy was very useful. It helped us to see how technology has changed the voting process. It helped to prepare us for the future,” said Brennan Boone, a Boone County 4-H Teen Leader. “We learned about the value of voting and that voting is a right and a privilege. It helped to broaden our view of the role of government.”
Graddy said these youth interactions with government are critical to developing citizenship.
“I’ve always thought it was very important to start at a young age and get familiar with voting,” Graddy said. “We find lots of kids who are in their 20s and 30s before they ever vote for the first time.
“When I was a teenager, I had no idea what any of these (county) offices did,” Graddy said. “There’s more to coming to the courthouse than just getting a marriage license or paying your taxes.”
In Montgomery County, 4-Her’s had their own version of “The Amazing Race,” spending one Saturday in October with a dozen government officials and community leaders.
Mayor Jo Childress of Mount Ida was among the 11 city and county officials who helped explain various levels of government and what it means for citizens.
Programs like these are “very important. There’s so much to learn. If you don’t start early, they’ll never get it all,” she said. Childress said she enjoyed watching the 4-Her’s work together through the activity. “It wasn’t a matter of, ‘I’ll do it.’ They had to work together to get the program to work.”
A couple of moments stood out. One was the little girl who told her, “I didn’t know our mayor was a woman.”
Another was the boy who wanted to have his picture made with her. Childress had been mayor for a decade, and the boy, 10, was amazed that she had held the office as long as he’d been alive.
‘We can do these steps’
Another of the Montgomery County stops was with Robert Cavanaugh, who discussed how civic engagement can make a difference in public policy after which the kids put seven steps for community action in order.
“Cool! We can do these steps!” one of the youths said.
“This day made me wish even more young people would get involved. It seemed to be an excellent experience and a great opportunity to learn about leadership,” Cavanaugh said.
Making a difference
The youths who were part of the summer Citizenship Leadership camp were asked how the camp’s experiences changed them. The answers are telling in terms of the youths’ being open to hearing about circumstances affecting their community, as well as the opinions of others with whom they share the community:
- 88 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they would pay attention to news events that affect their communities.
- 94 percent said they agreed or strongly agreed that they would be interested in others’ opinions about public issues.
- 90 percent said they’d listen to everyone’s views whether they agreed or not.
- 90 percent said that when they heard about an issue, they would try to figure out if they were being told just one side of the story.
When the June campers were asked how they would make a difference in their community, state or world as an adult, the answers included:
- “Vote. This camp helped me to know what to look for in a leader in our government. Possibly run for a government position.”
- “I will try to organize a program that makes my community cleaner, healthier and more powerful.”
- “To have the kind of job that will let me change peoples’ lives.”
“It was amazing to watch these young people emerge from their shells and gain confidence. The program also had an impact on the elected officials and adult volunteers involved by showing them that youths can play an important role in shaping our communities and state.” McCullough said.
By the end of the year, members of the group also said they planned to take action, such as organizing community cleanups and starting food and clothing drives. Other comments included:
- “Go back to tell everyone I know about how bills are passed to hopefully do a lot of community service.”
- “I’m going to use more of my time helping people and less time helping myself.”
4-H is a youth development program conducted by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Cooperative Extension Service. The 4-H mission is to provide opportunities for youth to acquire knowledge, develop life skills, form attitudes and practice behavior that will enable them to become self directing, productive and contributing members of society.