My oldest son has always had a hard time finding something to focus on and direct attention too. Not because he’s hyper, actually quite the opposite. Held back by anxiety, he’s always found it extremely difficult to face the unknown. Team sports weren’t for him, as the busy, fast paced environment was more than his mind could handle and we often both left in tears. Needless to say, finding something that he could gain some self confidence in, find his footing with and be excited to participate in was a bit of a challenge. However, 4H changed all of that.
Many people are surprised when I tell them that I didn’t grow up in 4H. I honestly have no idea why I didn’t! I guess I was always in sports and kept busy enough that I didn’t realize what I was missing. When my son expressed interest in joining 4H I was excited, but reserved that he wouldn’t feel comfortable enough to really give it a try and every meeting would be a fight. But when we started going to meetings that first year and getting introduced to other 4H families, it was quickly apparent that we both felt at home. That brought on huge relief to me, but also to him as he started coming out of his shell even in that first year. Although very small steps at first, it was something he finally took the time to explore and feel out what it was all about. There is something special about the 4H community. It’s welcoming, inviting, warm and everyone is there for the same reason – to give our youth a learning experience that will go with them into the future, even as adults. Among the adults there is also a feeling of pride for all of the youth involved, whether we know them personally or not. Their steps towards success are celebrated by everyone. All of that silently passes to the youth, providing a stable, structured and safe environment that allows them to grow within it. This was just what my son needed, even though he had all of those things at home, it was out in the world where he needed to learn that those things existed and he could take part in them without panicking.
My son was 7 he was diagnosed with anxiety. While that seems young to worry about anxiety and how he coped with it, it was something that was debilitating to him. He’d been an anxious child since the day he was born but as he grew it got harder and harder to calm him and reassure him. When it would get the best of him, it was impossible to communicate with him until he was able to calm himself down. When we finally decided to speak to a doctor about it, she asked me how it affected the rest of the family. I hadn’t thought about it much but when I explained to her that our days were regularly dictated by what his mood was, she made it clear that it wasn’t “normal” and to put myself in his shoes. How would I feel if I was too nervous to even go to the grocery store? Or watch my brothers cry because they couldn’t go to the park after all because I felt like something bad would happen. That was a wake up call. We decided to start him on medication and to look for things we could do with him to encourage self confidence and give him a boost all around. Something outside of school, since at that time school was not a stable place for him due to several teacher switches (due to Mat leaves, and mid-year retirements) He enjoyed school, but due to those changes he was in a continued state of flux, where routine was something reassuring to him and the first 2 years of school, he didn’t have that.
This is where our 4H journey began. Since he was already showing interest, he registered as a Cloverbud that year. Which means he could be involved in whatever projects he wanted but didn’t compete on the same level as older members. This is a great way to introduce the younger members to the program. They get the full experience without any pressure to compete (although even as older members there is a choice to participate non-competitively) His first year he took the Exploring 4H Project which touched base on 6 projects 4H offers to give the younger members a chance to find what project they may want to take on the next year. The first few meetings he wouldn’t let me leave his side. I had to sit at the table with him while his leader explained the days project, I had to ask his questions for him and help pave the way. For many kids, this is usual and they can be pushed a bit to step out of that comfort zone. A kid with anxiety does not do well with the pushing part. For my son, that only ended up in total disaster. It took my husband and I a long time to realize that he wasn’t being stubborn, he just couldn’t do it. However, with me by his side, he put in the work and completed his projects and even ended that first year on a high note by being presented an award at our Christmas party that acknowledges a different Cloverbud after each year and their progression and involvement throughout the 4H season.
Receiving his trophy and name plate for the clubs Eleanor Tree Memorial Award
He spent the first year taking it all in and growing used to how it all worked. The second year as a Cloverbud, the changes in him started to be more noticeable. He tried new things, like the Woodsmen team, which he loved immediately even though he took that first year to watch more than participate, and this time during his Exploing 4H project meetings I was able to go for a coffee at a local café while he stayed with his leader and fellow members and to work on their projects. The first time I left his leaders yard was a huge milestone for both of us. I felt sure I’d get a call before I even turned out of the driveway so was hesitant to even bother, but he did it. And it was something to be celebrated for sure! He also took on a bigger project and trained an orphaned calf we had to show in the beef class. He was unable to show him at our county Achievement Days, but because he was a Cloverbud and non-competitive anyway, our Agriculture Leadership Coordinator came out to our farm so he could still show the calf and complete his project. This was great because he got to show off his hard work, and also learn some tips for the next time.
Standing with his calf ‘Rocky’ after completing Beef Showmanship
Competing in the Cross Cut Event in the 2018 Kings County Woodmen Competition
This past year he completed his first year as a Junior Member and the change in him is more evident than ever. I’ve had more parents and leaders come up to me and say they can’t believe he is the same child. This really shone through with his involvement with the Woodsmen Team. He stepped up to the log no matter what the couches asked him to try, and he was comfortable enough to voice what events he was uncomfortable with – that is a big feat no matter what age a person is! He took on a few new projects as well which introduced him to a few older members and allowed him to become more confident yet again in everything he was accomplishing. He also volunteered himself for community involvement and fundraising activities instead of me suggesting that we do them. Seeing him step up like that still astonishes me. Knowing he’s comfortable enough not only in his surroundings, but also with himself is probably one of the most amazing things to witness as his parents.
Preparing to serve with other 4H members at a Gala Dinner for a local Hospice Foundation
What really opened my eyes to his growth was during 4H Provincial Show last month. He was able to take the time to get comfortable with the surroundings, and then go off with his friends while I wandered around or stayed with other parents. He had a few rocky moments as it was tiring and there were a lot of people around, but overall he was independent in ways I hadn’t totally expected. He, and many of the other 4H’ers stepped up and helped friends who were showing cattle and horses with keeping their stalls clean, checking on water and feed and encouraging each other for various projects they were showing off. Many of these members, my son included, who helped out their friends weren’t actually showing livestock themselves, but just wanted to lend a hand. Last year, we spent a whole hour at Provincial Show before he couldn’t settle down and we had to leave. This year, we spent the entire weekend there, and he walked away with a lot memories, but a lot more sure of himself as well.
I give a lot of credit to his growth to the 4H program, but the leaders and volunteers are not the only ones have contributed to this. The youth themselves have an effect on one another far beyond what they can see. Our club has members from several different schools and communities and members from ages 7-21, so some of our members have even graduated high school, and a few of them are into a career already! No matter what the age, what school they attend or projects they are involved in, these young people all work together to make their 4H experience a good one. At community events they are all a team. The older members reach out to the younger members and aren’t afraid to step in and help guide them, or just to chat.
Youth run organizations take a lot of volunteer work from parents and other adults behind the scenes, but seeing everything these young people do with and without guidance amazes me, and seeing my own child starting to bloom and become one of these youth leaders makes me a very proud parent. Seeing how easily he now slides in to those roles, and takes on his projects and steps up to the plate is a feeling unlike anything I can really describe. Pride for sure, and relief that he’s found a comfort zone.
While 4H isn’t the only answer to helping him cope with anxiety, it has done a lot to help him understand it. To work through that feeling of unease, and come out the other side and realize that the anxiety he was feeling was more like exciting butterflies and not the crippling feeling that would previously shut him down. Its a program that allows him to work through his projects at his own pace, and not be required to keep up with the pack. Its only as demanding as he makes it to be. It doesn’t expect him to outwork anyone else, or himself. He can go as far as he wants with it, or find a spot he enjoys and stay there. It allows him, and all youth to take a leadership role, learn the ins and outs of governance or help them discover another passion. As a parent and a leader, I see several members who have learned they have a calling working with children, some of learned they have a talent for computer programming. Some have discovered a passion of baking and have started their own side businesses on the weekends creating cakes and cupcakes for community members. Some have found they have a love for travel and have taken advantage of the many exchange and tour programs within 4H. There really is something for everyone to partake in, no matter what the comfort level. No matter how outgoing or introverted you are. There’s only as much pressure on you as you can handle. You’re in the drivers seat, and have a community around you to help when you need or want it. Most importantly – You fit in and there is a place for everyone.
You may have noticed that I haven’t mentioned trophies and how they play a part. While these are wonderful, and he sure came home with his fair share this year, in the grand scope of things they aren’t the most important things to him. They are an awesome way to acknowledge the work and to encourage members to continue growing within their projects. However, what’s important to him, and us as his parents, are the real life experiences he gains from being a part of 4H. While that sometimes includes disappointment, that is also part of learning and growing up. Disappointment is part of life and learning how to cope with it in a supportive environment like 4H and other youth organizations, teaches more than just how to fix the problems, but also build upon them, make improvements and improvisations and then move on. While we now have a shelf full of trophies, ribbons, buttons, and medallions to show off, the biggest award he has now is all of those experiences and memories that have helped, and will continue to light the fire within him to take more on, to be comfortable in his own skin and realize that while things may be scary from time to time, he has added to his toolkit for life and can move forward and enjoy those times as well. His anxiety will be something he lives with likely forever, like we all do, but by learning how to cope with it now, he’ll be able to handle it as he grows into an adult and make decisions based on how much he can take on instead of allowing the anxiety to hold him back from successes and enjoyment in life.
At the 2018 Kings County Awards Banquet where he received a trophy for Champion Junior Tractor Article and a Medallions for Junior Tractor Judging.
As we continue with 4H, we look forward to seeing what the future brings for him and our other 2 sons if they decide to follow their older brother into it. We have already grown into roles as a family and can see that 4H will definitely be a part of our future. Knowing that we may be able to play a part to help another child learn to cope with their own challenges, or help provide a little confidence booster every now and then is a very humbling thought and we are beyond grateful to everyone who has done that for our son through this truly wonderful program. It really does take a village, and we’re happy to find our home within the 4H community.