'Learning by doing': Helena-area 4-H programs teach kids life skills

'Learning by doing': Helena-area 4-H programs teach kids life skills

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“Barn in the USA” was the theme for this year’s 4-H events held at the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds from July 25 through July 27. Red, white and blue decorations displayed above the 4-H animals’ pens served as an exclamation point at the end of the participants’ full and diligent year.

Participating in the 4-H events at the Last Chance Stampede and Fair marks the completion of the 4-H program for those students who take part in agricultural projects. Kids ages 8 through 18 can choose to focus on the following animal projects: beef, goat, lamb, swine, rabbit, poultry, horse, cat, dog, as well as pocket animals.

Throughout the 4-H year, kids spend countless hours caring and feeding their animals in preparation for auction at the fairgrounds. Kids have the option to show and/or enter their animals in the auction -- a decision that is solely up to them.

Becky deMontigny, 18, showed two of her steers this year at the fair. She explains one of the many skills she’s learned while participating in 4-H.

“The entire 4-H process takes a lot of time commitment. So I’ve learned how to manage my time well throughout the whole program,” she said.

Denice Harris, the 4-H Council vice president, describes how 4-H is so much more than just showing animals and entering them into auction at the end of July.

“There’s a record-keeping component that I think is also unique to 4-H and teaches kids at a very young age to be accountable for what they’ve learned,” she said. “It’s not just checking off boxes, they have to turn these things in and demonstrate that they understand at the end of the year, what is it that they were supposed to do, and if they accomplished it, and how.”

These 4-H kids have honed their abilities in the same way its founders envisioned -- “learning by doing.”

To complement that vision, Harris wants to focus on making 4-H more kid-centric -- giving them the chance to mold the club’s future.

“Lewis and Clark County, this year, started a youth council. Those (youth council) decisions are sent out to the club to vote, so every kid has a say in what’s going on,” she said. “That’s really been a shift from years past, and we’ve seen positive results from that. Kids are more engaged, they are more willing to roll their sleeves up and get involved. It creates buy-in from the kids and no one’s really going to argue with you, when the kids say this is what they want.”

Harris explains how the kids’ renewed engagement has had a tremendous impact on this year’s marketing efforts.

“We have really smart kids here in Helena and Lewis and Clark County,” she said. “They just have some really creative out-of-the-box ideas, and I have to say that it actually brings tears to my eyes.”

The enthusiasm, persistence and hard work of this year’s 4-H’ers paid off monetarily, as well.

This year, there was a total of 36 new buyers who have never bought an animal before or haven’t purchased one since 2017. Additional sales have increased 21% over last year, upwards of $62,000. The total amount of money donated to the kids was over $342,000.

4-H’s roots were founded in agriculture, but that’s not the only piece of the 4-H puzzle.

Kara Tangedal is the 4-H youth development extension agent for Lewis and Clark County, and is employed by Montana State University. Tangedal’s primary role is to share agriculture information gathered by Montana State with the community through the platform of 4-H.

Tangedal hones in on the many facets of 4-H.

“A lot of these kids, even if they are in a livestock project, they’re also doing a lot more than that. They’re doing team leadership, they’re part of the youth council. It’s more than just the animal … it’s more about how this kid is going to grow up and what they are going to be able to accomplish after that,” she said.

DeMontigny’s experience and love for 4-H inspired her to pursue a veterinary career. DeMontigny is currently enrolled in the pre-vet program in Bozeman and is hoping to go to vet school after her four years of study.

As for 4-H volunteering later in life, deMontigny adds, “I’m hoping the in future, I can serve in that adult role, and then hopefully have kids involved in the program as well.”

DeMontigny wanted to make sure that all the buyers know how much they are appreciated.

“I just want to say a big thank you to our buyers, every year at the livestock auction,” she said.

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