By Martha Smith
“I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service and my health to better living for my club, my community, my country and my world.”
More than a decade has passed since I last uttered those words at a 4-H meeting, yet these words that make up the 4-H Pledge still roll right off my tongue, and my hands still know exactly where they should be positioned for each verse. As I sit here reflecting back on my 4-H career, my mind is swarmed with wonderful memories of the many, many activities I participated in through 4-H and the impact those activities are still having on my life today.
I still vividly remember the first time I participated in the 4-H presentations contest as a 4th grader in Mrs. Thompson’s class. This was my first real venture into the world of public speaking, and I was scared to death. But, I knew my older sister had received a blue ribbon for her presentation a couple years ago, so I was bound and determined to conquer my fears and also win my first blue ribbon.
My chosen topic was, “How to Show a Market Hog,” which was quite fitting for a farm girl like me. My parents had assisted me with preparing my large presentation boards that included hand-stenciled letters (a.k.a., the PowerPoint of the 1990s). I brought along a stuffed miniature toy pig for the presentation and used a life-size cane and wire brush to teach my classmates and fellow 4-H members how to show a pig. I recall my hands shaking with fear as I made my way through the presentation, and I recall the huge wave of relief that came over me when I finished and returned to my desk. I had successfully made it through the whole presentation! And to my delight, I was awarded a blue ribbon and, thus, began a lifetime of public speaking for me.
As a member of my schools’ 4-H clubs and also a member of the local 4-H Stockmen’s Club, I could tell many other stories from my 10 wonderful years of 4-H membership. I experienced so many “firsts” through 4-H: the first time I balanced a checkbook; first time I met with and lobbied legislators; first time speaking to an audience of strangers; first time shooting a firearm; first time attending an overnight camp; first time serving as an officer in a club; and the list goes on and on. Certain memories of 4-H stick out as the ones I’m most proud of: being inducted into the Virginia 4-H All Stars; serving as President of my high school’s “The One” 4-H club; serving as Chief of the Occoneechee Tribe at 4-H camp; and winning Supreme Showmanship at my county’s 4-H livestock show.
But the experiences that really stand out in my mind are the ones where I developed lifelong friends. Just last month, a high school friend posted a photo on Facebook of a group of us at the Virginia 4-H Congress on the Virginia Tech campus. We were all amused at the flashback photo and began reminiscing on our 4-H days. These are friends who I don’t speak with too often now but who I can pick right back up with at a moment’s notice, as we share such a strong bond from the many hours we spent together during our 4-H days.
4-H was a huge part of my entire childhood, and I feel so blessed to have been introduced to the organization at such a young age. I have no doubt that my experience with events like public speaking gave me a leg up once I entered “the real world.” I developed confidence and poise and learned the significance of being granted responsibility and, thus, the need to act responsibly. I experienced the fruits of success and the lessons to be learned from the times when you don’t succeed at a project. I learned how to be a leader and how to work as a team. I also learned the value and great need for serving others in your community. 4-H gave me many opportunities to experience new things and travel to new places, all while expanding my horizons, which surely gave me the courage to seek out my dreams and ambitions in life. I have no qualms in saying that outside of my family, 4-H had the most significant influence on developing me into who I am today.
In honor of National 4-H Week, I’d also like to give a shout out to all the 4-H staff and volunteer leaders. The time, dedication and passion they put into 4-H truly makes 4-H what it is: the premier youth leadership and service organization in rural and urban America. I owe so much to Mr. McCormick, who served as the County 4-H Extension Agent for my entire 4-H career. The weekends and nights that he gave up to 4-H is truly remarkable, and his desire to aide us in growing and developing left a lasting impression on all of us. I haven’t had a chance to say it recently but, thank you, Mr. McCormick.