Georgia 4-H programs threatened by budget cuts
Budget cuts could eliminate all 94 Georgia agents,
and five statewide centers could close.

Georgia Times-Union

By Teresa Stepzinski
Story updated at 11:43 PM on Sunday, Mar. 7, 2010

BRUNSWICK - Helen Clark has pledged her head, heart, hands and health to helping others.

The 16-year-old Camden County girl has adopted the 4-H Club mission as her personal philosophy.

With the confidence and leadership skills she gained in 4-H, Helen spearheaded a relief project in the county's elementary schools to provide bandages, cotton balls and other basic first aid supplies to needy children in Uganda.

She may be among the last to learn those values through the club. All 4-H clubs and centers are among programs the University System of Georgia has marked for possible elimination. The plan comes in response to a state House and Senate subcommittee demand for $300 million in budget cuts.

Under the plan, all 94 of the county 4-H agents in Georgia would lose their jobs and all five 4-H facilities statewide including Jekyll Island's would close.

"I was just devastated when I heard about it. So many kids gain so much from 4-H. I don't understand how they could get rid of it like that," said Clark, a Camden County High junior and 4-H Club member for seven years.

She is among about 900 Camden County fifth through 12th graders in 4-H. She and many of her counterparts in Southeast Georgia say 4-H cannot be replaced.

"It gives you new horizons to explore ... You meet kids from all over the state and it gives you a chance to do things to help other people," Helen said. She is one of four Georgia delegates to this month's National 4-H Conference in Washington, D.C.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has vowed to protect the state's university system, which operates 4-H, from crippling cuts, and rebuked legislators for scare tactics and fear mongering.

Legislators are also hearing from their districts.

Clark's mother, Lisa, and other parents of 4-H'ers are beseeching lawmakers via letters, e-mails and telephone calls to keep the program intact.

"I cannot believe this is a targeted area to cut," said Lisa Clark, a member of the county 4-H leadership team.

The clubs are one of the most effective ways to engage students, and it keeps many at-risk pupils from dropping out of school, she said.

"Georgia 4-H is an unprecedented program, producing extraordinary results across grade and ability levels that should not be underestimated. ... What the kids learn, they teach others," Lisa Clark said.

'Hit by a sucker punch'

At least 156,000 Georgia youths ages 9 to 19 participate in 4-H's educational programs ranging from agriculture and environmental sciences to technology and the arts.

Emphasizing community service, 4-H helps youngsters develop life skills in leadership, citizenship, communication and decision making.

Coffee, Glynn and Camden counties are among the largest and most active 4-H programs in Southeast Georgia. Members' projects regularly earn state, national and international honors.

News that the program was even under consideration for elimination stunned people throughout the state.

"We have a lot of unhappy kids and people upset over this," said Kevin Tatum, the Coffee County 4-H agent. "Some said it's like being hit by a sucker punch."

Tatum joined 4-H as a child 22 years ago. He works with about 1,400 members, where pet therapy at local nursing homes is as popular as livestock projects and BB gun marksmanship.

The 4-H youths have participated in cultural exchange programs with counterparts from as far as Puerto Rico, he said.

"It makes you wonder what the kids would have available to do if the 4-H program is not available to them anymore," Tatum said.

Vital in rural areas

Tino Johnson is one of the club's many success stories. The Douglas native is assistant director of admissions at the University of Georgia, which operates 4-H in the state.

Raised by his great-aunt, Johnson joined 4-H in fifth grade and stayed in it through college. He served as state vice president, and later managed the Jekyll Island 4-H Center.

"It really meant more to me than just a club," Johnson said. "What I gained the most from 4-H was the confidence of public speaking and learning how to interact with others."

4-H is vital, especially in small or rural communities, he said.

"It's a big necessity in those communities because there might not be many outlets and opportunities for students otherwise," Johnson said. "Other organizations and clubs don't reach students early enough."

The state's budget deficit threatens to slam the door on such opportunities.

"We know there is an issue and that something has to be done, but wiping out the whole 4-H program doesn't seem to be the right solution," said Robi Gray, Glynn County 4-H agent and county extension coordinator.

About 1,500 youngsters take part in Glynn County's year-round 4-H program, Last year, about 26,003 students, educators and tourists visited the Jekyll Island 4-H Center and its Tidelands Nature Center.

A priceless experience

As they learn about Coastal Georgia's unique ecosystem, the visitors patronize local businesses, pumping money into the state and local economies, Gray said.

Three groups of students, their faces caked with marsh mud, waded through a tidal pool off a marsh hummock Thursday, led by Amy Summerford, an instructor at the 4-H Center on Jekyll Island. The black mud in the flat marsh is a far cry from the red clay in the hills around their Anderson, S.C., homes.

Summerford told the McCants Middle School students that such educational experiences may end if the 4-H center is closed.

When she finished, a McCants teacher said, "We're facing the same cutbacks in South Carolina."

4-H members say the experience is priceless.

Thomas Trinh, a Brunswick High School senior, joined 4-H as a fifth-grader. Trinh recently won first place for instrumental in the Performing Arts at the 2010 4-H Project Achievement competition at Rock Eagle 4-H Center near Eatonton.

The club offers a variety of opportunities while most school clubs focus on one area such as business, drama or Latin, he said.

"4-H can take anyone and help them improve themselves and their community," Trinh said. "It seems weird that 4-H could go away ... Why get rid of one of the best things our community has to offer?"

Times-Union writer Terry Dickson contributed to this report.
teresa.stepzinski@jacksonville. com, (912) 264-0405