“What is 4-H?” “How does 4H affect the Johnson County community?” “Why are kids involved in 4-H?” “What are the benefits of being involved in 4-H?” “How do I join a club?” “What all does 4-H require of me?”
In the simplest form, Jeanie Robotham--the Johnson County Extension office agent for 4-H youth and development--says that when it comes to 4-H, “it’s a family thing.”
4-H is a nonprofit organization that has several groups/clubs present just in Johnson County. They are a youth development organization for young people that teaches them leadership and life skills that they will be able to take with them for the rest of their lives.
When asked about the mission of 4-H, Jeanie said, “To make the best better of course. Like in our pledge, you know, it's for your club, your community, your country, and your world.
We teach them life skills so that these kids (after this program) can go out and excel both in the workforce and the community. Outside of teaching life skills we also teach some college and career readiness to the kids. There is also the community side of things from our mission of citizenship through 4-H. We definitely want them to be a better citizen as well and be able to understand the county and state government and to have an active role in their community.”
Once kids and their families join a 4-H club, they then attend a regular meeting with their club that is conducted by the youth officials, and they also get to pick the project that they will work on independently as a member of 4-H. These projects range anywhere from raising and showing livestock, designing, creating, and modeling clothes, photography, robotics, leadership, health and wellness, and so on. While these projects are mostly worked on independently, the kids still have opportunities to bring their projects into meetings to share them with their club, they have the chance to attend workshops and learn more about certain aspects of their project, and of course, everyone in the club is willing to help those that need it.
When looking at the projects that each kid takes on when they join 4-H, they are broken down into the following categories: mind, body, citizenship, service learning, fine arts, STEM, and agriculture. Each of these categories houses projects such as bullying prevention, human development, leadership mentorship, music and film, gardening, soil science, forestry or wildlife, computer science, etc. There truly is a niche for any interest when it comes to 4H projects.
Outside of the projects, Jeanie talked a little bit about the other things that 4-H does, like club service/volunteer projects to complete their service hours, county, state, and national workshops, and the list goes on. There is so much value and involvement that 4-H provides to the community that has impacted people like Jeanie, as well.
Jeanie shared, “I actually grew up as a 4Her. I think I definitely benefited so much from being involved in the 4H program as an organization just from leadership skills and public speaking.”
Now that Jeanie’s 4H experience has come full circle with her working at the extension office, she shared “You know, I get to see kids that are so shy and scared and in just a few years they are leading and conducting workshops, they’re going on national trips, and they’re doing so many things…And I have seen kids that come through this program that are now veterinarians or work for the department of agriculture, or they are business owners in town, or they work at the bank and serve on a board. I think that’s a neat thing in seeing the long-term goal achieved and the fundamentals they learned in 4-H that allow these kids to go on and be successful in life. I think that is why people are so willing to come back and help because they have seen that impact.”
When talking about 4-H and the impact it has made on Johnson county, it could not be brought up without talking about the Heiser family. Marie and Greg Heiser are the owners of Sweet Treats in Lamar, Arkansas, and both of these individuals are personally tied to 4H because of their kids and their continuous involvement in this organization, even now that their kids are grown. On the business side of things, Sweet Treats is a restaurant and catering business that is open for lunch 11AM-2PM Monday-Friday, and they cater anything from an office party to the wedding of your dreams. Along with their homecooked lunch, they also offer desserts for dine-in or pick up--whole or individually.
I was able to sit down with Marie Heiser individually to talk about Sweet Treats, 4H, and their ties to it all. Outside of being the co-owner of Sweet Treats, she is also the head baker that covers any of the desserts at Sweet Treats. Most days she also works back in the kitchen “making sure everyone goes out right and everything’s done right,” as she says.
As a business, Sweet Treats has been a part of the Lamar community for 18 years. When Marie and Greg opened Sweet Treats, their kids were both at school age, and Marie said “I was doing catering and we decided if we didn’t try it, we never would. So we just jumped off the cliff and decided we would try, and if we made it or we didn’t, we could say we tried. And so we tried and so far we’ve made it.”
Even 18 years later Marie explains that they try not to take a single day for granted at Sweet Treats and they still take things as they come. They look at a year in the business and hope they can make it another, but they never expect anything.
With the establishment of Sweet Treats and her sons getting a little bit older, Marie shared how her oldest son shared interest in a group like 4-H. As a family they had no idea what they were getting into but decided to join with a starting project of getting a baby chick, raising it, and showing it at the fair. This is what started it all for this family as they built up into showing bigger animals and becoming involved in 4-H in more ways than just with livestock.
With an increase in involvement with 4-H, Marie mentioned how Sweet Treats were able to identify a need in the organization and fill that need.
Marie said, “And then with 4-H, we wanted them to have a banquet at the end of the year because a lot of sports get to have a banquet, where groups like 4H and FFA did not. So when the children were in school, we told the board that the kids wanted to have an end-of-the-year banquet and that Sweet Treats would cater and put on the event for free.”
Marie also shared that Sweet Treats is able to donate things like buckles and trophies and awards for the kids to receive at the banquet. Along with making the banquet happen in aiding in any way that they could, Jeanie shared how often she has had a need for an event or a conference whether it was for a guest speaker or judges for any kind of competition and that Marie and Greg were always more than willing to help with those things.
A really unique way that Marie shared that both her and Greg--and Sweet Treats as a business--are able to support the kids in 4-H at the end of the year is to bid on their animal at the auction after the fair. This money is given to the kids so that they can buy a new animal and continue to show animals, take care of them throughout the year, and so on.
When talking about putting money towards the kids’ animals, Marie said, “These kids aren’t making money off of this. They need us to show up and donate or give that money where they can’t do it the next year. They can’t afford to share their projects each year, so they need us to do that.”
Both Jeanie and Marie shared separately about how Marie and her family have aided kids in numerous ways to be able to be involved in 4-H and show an animal if they wish to do so. When Marie’s sons were still in 4-H as children, they had friends that wanted to show animals but weren’t able to keep an animal like a cow at their home. Marie and her family allowed their sons’ friends to keep the animal at their barn--along with their sons’--as long as they came by every day to take care of the animal and work with it. She shared that a lot of times these kids would come to their home and work their animals alongside her sons as they helped one another learn and grow before it was time to show the animals.
“Now, we’re not the only ones that we're able to do this. We had neighbors that had sheep, and when kids couldn’t afford an animal, they would let them take one of their sheep home so that they could take care of it, keep it for the year, and then give them back after they showed them. Even my kids--for several years--got sheep from them since we didn’t have a use for the sheep after the fair,” Marie said.
This continuous cycle of supporting each other so that the kids even have a chance to grow and succeed in this program all starts with just one person outstretching their hand to the other. Before Marie’s kids started showing cattle, they even had a neighbor that kept the cow at their farm and allowed Marie’s sons to come every day to take care of the animal and work with it--just like she did for her sons’ friends. Regardless of the situation, the focus of those involved in 4-H is for the kids to experience all that there is to offer and get the most out of 4-H that they can before they graduate.
When talking about 4H, Marie said, “It accepts all. Your family can be rich or poor or in the middle and they can figure something out so that the kids can achieve something.”
All of the highlights of 4H that both Marie and Jeanie mentioned earlier, require the whole family to be involved, and not just the member’s immediate family. Both discussed how families will join 4-H without a clue of what they got themselves into or what it is they are supposed to do next. With the families that have been a part of 4H for some time, they take those new ones under their wings and help them figure things out a bit. That is what goes beyond just immediate family and looks at 4H as a family, itself.
Marie also talked about how beneficial 4-H is for kids when preparing them for the rest of their lives in that she said, “ So I think 4H lets these kids try so many different things that they learn more about what they want to do that they love. I told my boys long ago, you live your dream. I think 4H helps them learn what their dream is. It makes them ask, what is the thing that I love to do? Because if you love to do it, it's never work.”
Outside of Sweet Treats and the Heiser family, 4-H has so many people and businesses that support and really make their organization function as it does in the community. On the advisory board for 4-H, they have members that serve like Matt Wiley from First Security Bank, Markty Wilkins at Farm Bureau, and Tiffany Jordan at Danielle’s Bridal. Phillip Taylor with Taylor Insurance also serves on the advisory board, and his late dad and mom were also big supporters of 4-H as well. Farm Bureau, along with other local banks, also supports 4-H in just about any aspect that is needed. There are also members of the community that have contributed to 4-H by volunteering for different things or just coming in and speaking to the kids. 4-H also has a couple of college scholarships, one in honor of the late Virginia Bachman, and the other in honor of the late Dennis Steele. Virginia Bachman’s husband, Larry Bachman is a big supporter of 4-H as well. Dennis Steele’s daughter Tiffany Jordan, his wife Lynn Steele, and his mom Alene Steele are all big supporters, too. Receiving support from all ends of the spectrum, the fair board president was Herman Ahrens who worked at the Johnson County Co-op and was a long-time supporter of 4-H.
One of the benefits of 4H’s presence in the community is that you do not have to be a member to be involved. If anyone is interested in volunteering as a judge of any competition, as a guest speaker, as a part of the crew for different events and fundraisers, all you have to do is to contact the Johnson County Extension Office at 479-754-2240. You could also find out more information on whom to contact and where to visit if you are interested in 4H by checking out their website (4h.uada.edu ), the general University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture website (www.uaex.uada.edu), or visiting their Facebook page (UAEX-Johnson County 4-H).
When asked what she knew the community knew about 4-H, Jeanie said, “I wish people kind of knew that it’s more than just the fair. Of course, a lot of our 4H and FFA members’ project include showing an animal at the fair, but I just wished people knew that we are an organization that truly develops youth into future leaders and that we prepare these kids for college and future careers. A lot of times we say that 4-H is the best-kept secret, but I just wish that more people knew about it and realized what 4-H actually entails.”
With an organization that carries such a heavy impact on the Johnson County community as a whole, be reminded of the valued citizens this organization is helping shape. Be reminded of how you too could be involved in the beloved organization that is 4-H. Be reminded that, when it comes to 4H, it’s not just a family thing, it’s not just a neighbor thing, it’s a community thing.
Abby Asencio is a senior at the University of the Ozarks and has been interning with the Johnson County Chamber of Commerce for the duration of the spring semester of 2022. Throughout her internship, she has worked with Matt Bewley to create Connecting Our Community.