Tracy Wyatt would hate to see her daughter Rachel's 4-H participation come to an end for something out of her control, like funding.
Rachel, 16, has been a member of the Williamsburg-area Kids for Kids goat club, one of 11 clubs in Blair County, since she was about 8 years old.
If the struggling Blair County program were to close, Rachel would have to give up her involvement with the youth development program or try to join a club in Huntingdon or Bedford counties.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Rachel Wyatt, 16, of Frankstown Township with her 6-month-old Boer cross goat Merlin. Wyatt is a member of the Kids for Kids 4-H goat club.
"That's a pretty big hardship," Wyatt said. "We do fundraisers. The kids really make as much as they can. They sell hard. It's just not enough. We need community support."
The state's 4-H programs are governed by Penn State University's Cooperative Extension offices. Blair County Extension Office Director Tom Ford said it was decided to operate the Blair program with Huntingdon's, rather than close up Blair's entirely, when the program ran into funding issues years ago.
Christine Corl, a 4-H educator, oversees Blair's program, which has 11 clubs and about 200 kids, and Huntingdon's, which has 23 clubs and about 400 members.
In Bedford County, Dwayne Hay, Bedford County Extension educator, said there are 450 members in 31 clubs.
One reason Huntingdon 4-H may be more popular could be because there are more 4-H-related events such as the county fair, which Ford said "tends to unite the 4-H program."
"You have a livestock show and sale and smaller venues, but you don't have that one signature event to bring everyone together," Ford said about Blair County. "Being smaller, you don't have the access to funding the way that a larger program would have."
The potential for 4-H in Blair County is huge, he said, especially in nonagriculture areas of development. He said there is the potential to transform the lives of the 12,000 youth in the Altoona area who are between 4-H ages of 8 and 18.
"If we could somehow or another tap the potential of the 4-H program, fund it, target youth in more urban areas within the county, there's a huge potential to grow the program and get those kids into programs where they can improve their skills," he said. "Four-H is not just agriculture and animals."
While 4-H is a youth development program similar to Scouting or other organizations, Corl said it separates itself through its availability to both boys and girls as well as their families.
"For me, it's about building leadership skills in kids and project skills, as well," she said. "There's something in 4-H for everybody. There's this misperception in the world that 4-H is just about animals, and it's not. It has its roots in the agricultural sector, but it's not what we're all about."
In order to survive, the Blair County office will need to start an endowment fund, Ford said, with a $1 million long-term goal providing perpetual support to the program.
In the near future, about $7,000 is needed to pay an AmeriCorps worker who has been helping Corl. That bill is due in September, and he said the money to temporarily pay it will likely be taken from funding for program areas such as horticulture and family living.
"If we really want to keep 4-H around in Blair County, then the endowment is our best hope," Ford said.
The 50 or so adult volunteers in the county make a difference, Corl and Ford emphasized, although there is room for people from all walks of life and with all skill sets to help ease the burden - whether it be someone with a strength in financial recordkeeping to help a club's treasurer, a parent to help with snacks for meetings or someone with computer expertise to help new members enroll online.
"Without them, we wouldn't have a program," Corl said of the volunteers. "Their plates are full, too. I couldn't reach 200 kids on my own."
Corl called the current situation "difficult but doable."
"We're maintaining but we're not growing," she said. "There's so much potential for growing that it just doesn't seem the right thing to continue the way we are."
Christine Wise of Friends Farm in Royer and leader of the Williamsburg-area 4-H club for goats realizes the importance of 4-H for area youth.
"It's not about animals," Wise said. "It's a youth development program that teaches leadership and responsibility. It changed my kids' lives."
The most important part, Wyatt said, is the preservation not just of agriculture but of family.
"Whenever you go to a meeting, it's not just kids," Wyatt said. "It's a big family thing, and there's not a lot like that anymore. The kids just love this."
For more information on 4-H, including projects and volunteer opportunities or to learn how you can help, contact one of the county extension offices or visit extension.psu.edu or pa4h.cas.psu.edu.
Mirror Staff Writer Wendy Zook is at 946-7520.