Youth in ag, Program involves nontraditional students
Evanston – Over the past 15 years, the Uinta County 4-H program in Evanston has worked hard to bring agriculture to young people who typically aren’t exposed to raising livestock.
“We wanted to give the kids in the Youth Alternative Home and Youth Shelter the opportunity to raise animals and join 4-H,” says Debbie Fitch of the Youth Alternative Home. “The experience is therapeutic for them.”
With the help of 4-H Extension Educator Dawn Sanchez, the Youth Ag Program was born.
The success of the program has been remarkable, and Debbie comments, “We are surpassing what we ever thought we would achieve.”
Young people that live in the Youth Alternative Home and Youth Shelter live in the facility for any of a number of reasons. The at-risk teens may spend a short amount of time or a longer stretch at the facility.
The varied backgrounds of the youth includes students who are disconnected from their family structure for a short time, at-risk youth who are removed from their family structure for a longer period to solve individual problems, and youth who reside in urban housing that does not enable them to raise an animal.
The students from all three groups are provided the opportunity to raise a livestock animal to show at the county fair through the Uinta County 4-H program.
“When we first started,” explains Fitch, “we went to the county commissioners, and they allowed us to use our fairgrounds from April 1 to Oct. 1 to house the animals the youth are raising.”
Youth at the facilities purchase a livestock animal – ranging from pigs and lambs to goats and rabbits – and raise the animal through the summer.
The Youth Ag Program also provides some of the equipment needed to help these youth be successful in their projects.
“We can check out equipment that belongs to the Youth Ag Program if families or youth aren’t able to afford it, as well,” says Fitch.
By allowing students to borrow equipment, it makes the program more affordable for those involved.
“Through the program, we teach them how to feed and care for the animals,” says Fitch. “We also teach them how to show their animals, the different parts of raising the animals and how to work with them.”
They also discuss the carcass quality of animals, since the projects are 4-H market livestock animals.
“It takes a lot of time,” she adds, “but we see definite benefits for the kids.”
The program, adds Fitch, has resulted in a number of positive transformations.
Sanchez comments, “The program provides a means for youth to connect with agriculture while teaching entrepreneurship and life skills, such as patience, improved peer relations, team building, self-worth, motivation, self-esteem, nurturing, humor, group interaction, recordkeeping and animal management.”
She continues that the youth are able to achieve a sense of accomplishment and says, “The therapeutic value of the program is immense. ‘Hardened’ kids become softer and abused kids come out of their shells, while pride and a sense of accomplishment rise.”
“In a three- to four-month period, volunteers and youth service staff members have seen youth transform from not wanting to be a part of the program to shedding tears when time to sell their animals,” Sanchez notes.
“I see a great value to these kids,” she says. “It teaches them everything from bonding with the animals to work ethic to learning how to care for something.”
As with any 4-H project, the youth are expected to provide all care to their animals.
“At first, the kids say they don’t want to clean the pens or feed their animals, but by the end of fair, they really love them and are sad to sell them,” Fitch says.
“The animals unconditionally love these kids,” she adds. “That bonding is important.”
At the same time, Fitch says that the opportunity provides the only connection to agriculture that some youth will ever see.
“For some of these kids, this will be their only exposure to raising a pet or animal, and it’s quite a commitment for these kids and their parents,” she explains.
One observer shares, “Animals are creatures with individual personalities that are capable of loving and relying on people to survive. The magic is that they give back to us. When these kids go to the fairgrounds, the animals are just waiting at the fence for their boys or girls to come. When a little calf licks the hand of a boy, the boy reaches down and gives it a hug. Animals learn to be caring and loyal, too.”
In exchange for the use of the fairgrounds facilities, the Youth Ag Program also does community service on the grounds.
“The Youth Ag Program participants help to clean up garbage or debris, like branches, on the fairgrounds,” says Fitch. “They empty garbage and do projects like painting the buildings.”
This year, she adds that students completed fundraising activities to purchase cement blocks for their sawdust pit, so the sawdust lasts longer and does not get rained on.
“In exchange for being out here, the kids do a lot of community service on the fairgrounds,” she comments.
Today, the program also includes students who live within the city limits of Evanston and are unable to own a 4-H animal because they don’t have the land on which to raise them.
Sanchez works with Fitch and community member Alex Morrill to help students from the Youth Alternative Home and Youth Shelter, as well as youth from in town, to develop their projects.
“We don’t put any restrictions on the program as far as the number of students that we allow to attend,” Fitch says. “Hopefully we won’t outgrow the barn.”
She adds that they hope to further expand the program to include other areas of Uinta County.
“The Lyman, Mountain View and Fort Bridger area is also very populated, and we’d like to expand over there to give that opportunity to students,” Fitch says. “We haven’t come up with the right facility there yet.”
She also notes that a number of other counties have adopted the model for the Youth Ag Program and are opening similar endeavors in their area.
“Anyone who wants to be involved in our program can be,” adds Fitch. “First, they need to join 4-H through the Extension Office. We can work with them at the fairgrounds.”
For those with additional questions about the program, Fitch notes, “We are more than willing to talk to anyone interested in the program – just give us a call.”