NEW YORK (AP) -- To the millions of people who live in rural America, 4-H is a part of life. It's how children learn about livestock and get their first taste of community service.
But 4-H, the Cooperative Extension System's youth education program, also teaches kids in the nation's cities and suburbs a thing or two -- including parenting responsibilities and the dynamics of different cultures.
In fact, 35 percent of the century-old, nonprofit group's 7 million members come from cities and suburbs, 10 percent live on farms and the rest come from small towns and cities.
"Young people and adults working together is the heart and soul of the 4-H and it has been for 100 years," said Don Floyd, executive director of the National Council.
Local 4-H clubs, which are guided by a national council, pair adults and children with similar interests to pass on knowledge and experiences.
"Our goal is to structure programs in communities that the individual communities need," he said. "We're not a one-size-fits-all program."
Sandra Mason, project director for 4-H's Dads Make a Difference in Baltimore, Md., said local branches can be very responsive to new issues, interests and concerns.
Her program trains 10th- through 12th-graders about the importance of fathers in children's lives, stressing legal issues, family structure, life goals and "risky behavior." These older children then repeat the lesson with middle schoolers.
The coed classes grew out of what was perceived as a need to teach teen-agers about being responsible for their actions.
"4-H has always taught life skills. Those skills depend on where you live and your life," said Mason.
Other community-specific programs include a skateboarding club in Bozeman, Mont.; the Happy Feet drive in Georgetown, Minn., which collects tennis shoes for children who can't afford them; and the Cultural Diversity Day Camp in Pensacola, Fla., a weeklong summer program that shares the foods, traditions, arts and languages of Hispanic, African, Asian and American Indian cultures.
"Young people really want to understand people who aren't like them. The interest in cultural diversity is there, we try to foster and explain it," Floyd said.
After the results of the 2000 census were released, the 4-H groups in and around Portland, Ore., saw the Latino population was booming. Their almost immediate response was Hermandad Latina, an academic development and mentoring program. The goal is a 100 percent high school graduation rate for Latino youths who participate in the program.
So far, there are 20 Latino high school students who receive leadership training and then mentor middle schoolers, helping them with homework, sports and community projects, said Shari Exo, coordinator of the local 4-H Youth Development Facility.
The children's interests range from soccer to folkloric dance.
Unlike her 4-H counterparts in more rural parts of Oregon, Exo sees a lot of "first-timers." This hasn't hampered children's interest at all but it has posed a challenge in recruiting adult leaders.
So, Exo's club is responding again by putting together bilingual kits for potential leaders.
A.B. Graham, a school principal in Springfield, Ohio, is usually given credit as the first leader of an organized club in the group that eventually has become known as 4-H. In 1902, he began his club with local boys and girls.
Similar clubs, largely focusing on farm topics, emerged in nearly all the existing states between 1905 and 1914, according to 4-H's official history. The four-leaf clover emblem was adopted first in Iowa in 1906, representing the four "squares" of the clubs: educational development, fellowship development, physical development and moral development.
Those four squares were later known as the four branches of good health, hence the "H's."
While the clubs' roots definitely were planted in rural areas, Floyd said, the move to cities began in earnest in the 1970s -- and the actual programs have been successful since they first arrived.
The "tactical mistake" was not giving the programs a 4-H name, he said. At the time, organizers were afraid using the clover emblem and the name would steer away city kids, but what's happened is not using the emblem and name has probably cost the 4-H potential leaders and donations.
"There's always a waiting list on the kids' part, but there's always a heavy campaign to find adult volunteers," said Floyd. (The current number of volunteers is 600,000; they're typically parents of kids enrolled in clubs.)
The National 4-H Council invests 93 percent of its annual $49 million budget in program serves, according to the national office.
To mark 4-H's 100th anniversary, the organization is taking stock of how it will best serve its members -- and members to come -- through a series of local "conversations." The findings will be presented to President Bush and members of Congress as 4-H's contribution toward providing the government with in-the-field ideas about creating safe and interesting environments for children.
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