After operating for nearly a century, Columbia County's 4-H program continues to thrive.
With more than 3,000 pupils participating in the program, the largest increase each year comes from the members' level of participation, said Shirley Williamson, Columbia County 4-H director and local event coordinator.
"It's not the membership that has increased so much," she said. "It's the active participation within that membership that has doubled in the last five to seven years."
The program offers 82 regular 4-H clubs for fifth through 12th grades, in addition to five speciality clubs, including the horse, bunny, shotgun, archery and beekeepers club, which started in October.
To Williamson, who has been with the county's 4-H program since 1994, leadership, citizenship and public speaking skills make up the three main components of 4-H.
"Research shows the younger you get students involved in community service, the more likely they are to be contributing members and go on to be volunteers in the community as adults," she said.
During the past five years, the Columbia County 4-H program has won "most participation" at competitive events, which also are called project achievements, Williamson said.
Ivana Hughes, a senior at Evans High School, has been a member of 4-H since she was in fifth grade and is a part of the cotton consumer judging team. She now holds the title of county council president, helping younger children with their projects.
"We try to encourage them (by) telling them it's a fun activity where you get to meet new people," the 17-year-old said. "It's also stuff that may not matter now, but it'll matter in the future, going on their college application and plus, all the friends you get to meet outside the county."
Hughes said 4-H has provided her with leadership, public speaking, socialization and consumer skills.
The program also earned numerous achievements in 2008, including an award for most junior and overall participation at a district event, according to a report compiled by Williamson.
In the shotgun competition, Columbia County 4-H senior state and area teams finished in first place and won the top individual spot at an area match. A county 4-H member placed seventh in horse judging. The consumer education team won the Nov. 18 district competition and advanced to the state competition. In addition, the poultry and forestry teams have won awards this year, Williamson said.
A Vidalia onion fundraiser supplies the majority of money for 4-H members to attend competitions.
"Because I have scholarship money to pay for them to go to these educational events, they're able to afford it," Williamson said.
At a recent bunny club meeting, more than a dozen members attended with their rabbits.
Malcolm McCord, a fifth-grader at Belair Elementary, won first place at a bunny club showmanship competition Dec. 6 in Columbia. His rabbit is a Mini Rex named Silver.
The 11-year-old said his favorite part of 4-H is "taking care of the world."
"We have done community service, planted trees (and) collected bottle caps for recycling," he said.
Kirsten Ganther, a fifth-grader at Westmont Elementary School, received her rabbit, Whopper, a Holland Lop, in October.
"We get to have a bunny and experience and learn how to take care of it," the 10-year-old said. "He can get a little hoppy sometimes."
The program is an education partner with Columbia County schools, and Williamson said teacher support has grown during the past 15 years.
Community service also plays a major role in the 4-H program, she said.
"We've just deposited over $2,400 in our separate Red Kettle Drive that our 4-H'ers do in every club meeting," she said. "We have also been one of the top contributors of young organizations to the Salvation Army."
Groups of 4-H members recently raised money for the Salvation Army by ringing bells at the Evans Wal-Mart.
Hughes said her favorite activity is participating in community services such as the bell-ringing event.
"Last year, we started singing songs and people started donating more money," she said. "It was so fun."
To learn more about the Columbia County 4-H program, call (706) 868-3413 or visit www.ugaextension.com/Columbia/4H.
"It's the bond that I and my staff builds between each 4-Her and their family," Williamson said. "I think that's really what makes 4-H special."
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