4-H programs go virtual during pandemic

GREATER WESTFIELD – Young people across Hampden County have not let the coronavirus pandemic stop them from participating in 4-H programs this year.

“Western Massachusetts 4-H has not missed a beat in this pandemic,” said Tom Waskiewicz, a Western Massachusetts 4-H educator. “In fact, we’ve rev’d up the programming for our 4-H youth and volunteers.”

Waskiewicz noted in the last three months, virtual Zoom workshops have centered on gardening, fitness and nutrition, sewing, teen leadership, horse science, club officer training and babysitting for young people.

“Workshops in the works are personal finance, storytelling, volunteer board training, entrepreneurship, and animal science,” said Waskiewicz, adding that technology has allowed 4-H educators to reach a wider audience and to tap into resources both within the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, 4-H, and to its supporters, including the Master Gardeners, the Farm Bureau and local veterinarians.

“4-H continues to meet the needs of a diverse population, ages 5-18,” said Waskiewicz. “Started in 1902, it has evolved as times warrant with research-based information provided by UMass Amherst and other Land-Grant universities from across the country.”

Zhanna Hayes is a member of the K9 Wizards 4-H Dog Club. She is pictured with her Labrador retriever mix “Pumpkin.” (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

Throughout the Greater Westfield area, there are a variety of clubs that are open to young people, including the Granville Mane-i-acs, a horse project; Back to Basics, a community service project, Hampden County Horse Power, also centering on horses, and the This N’ That Club featuring arts and crafts, needlework, sewing, quilting, goats and poultry, all based in Southwick, and in Westfield, the Clever Clovers 4-H Club centers on animals, arts and crafts, nutrition and photography; the Klineview Korral centers on horses, and the Wyben 4-H Dairy Club centers on beef and dairy. Also, the K9 Wizards 4-H Dog Club, based in Agawam, centers on working with dogs.

Elinore Inacio and her German Shorthaired Pointer “Zelda” participate in the K9 Wizards 4-H Dog Club. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

Two of the current 4-H participants, Zhanna Hayes, 14, and Elinore Inacio, 13, relish the time they spend with Carey Leckie, the longtime 4-H club leader with K9 Wizards. Leckie also serves on the 4-H Fair Committee.

“I really like the overall experience of 4-H and the friends I’ve made along the way,” said Hayes, who began her involvement with 4-H through a horse program. “Horses are a part of my life and I mainly do regular horse shows but not this year because of Covid-19.”

Hayes added that when her family adopted “Pumpkin,” a rescue Labrador retriever mix in 2017, she knew the dog had “decent manners” but she could improve her behavior with training.

“Before Covid-19 we would practice with our dogs at K9 Wizards meetings but now we are doing Zoom meetings,” said Hayes, noting participants work with their dogs in their own backyards during Zoom calls.

Inacio shared a similar sentiment.

“I joined the dog club to train my dog Zelda, a German Shorthaired Pointer, and to get to know people who have the same interests,” said Inacio. “I have learned how to properly show, train and care for my dog, as well as learning the biological things of a dog like the anatomy, dentals, and organ systems.”

Inacio also encourages young people to consider joining 4-H.

“Other kids should join because it really is truly fun as well as you really see right before your eyes how much the hard work you have put in to train your dog or animal has paid off,” said Inacio.

Leckie noted her role is to keep kids and animals safe and to facilitate helping them learn to work with their dogs to improve their abilities in the areas of dog care, training, and knowledge.

“The 4-Hers work with their dogs on showmanship, obedience, agility, and rally,” said Leckie. “They also work on dog knowledge where they learn about first aid, dog breeds, organ systems, internal and external anatomy, and dog husbandry and care.”

Leckie added that in addition to working with their dogs, the young people have opportunities in public speaking, have guest lecturers and trainers, attend dog shows, dog camps, and show at 4-H fairs and the Eastern States Exposition. In addition, she pairs the older members with newer ones so they have a chance to teach as well.

“During the pandemic we’ve transferred to an online model where we zoom both dog meetings and dog knowledge meetings where they work with other clubs across Connecticut as well to improve their knowledge in preparation for the tests at fairs and the Big E,” added Leckie.

Sarah Bonini, a longtime 4-H volunteer and 4-H alum, encourages parents to introduce 4-H to their children. She also serves on the Hampden County 4-H Advisory Council and the Hampden County 4-H Fair Association.

“4-H shaped my life,” said Bonini, adding, “4-H teaches invaluable life skills and provides our youth the building blocks for a successful adulthood.”

For Bonini, who started out at age 9 in a 4-H horse program, her “greatest memory” was competing in the New England 4-H Show at the Eastern States Exposition during her high school senior year and carrying the flag in the opening ceremonies.

“I remember how important constructive criticism was to me in my growth,” said Bonini. “I encourage an exhibitor to challenge himself, to take pride in his work, and to embrace originality. I ask him to respect and learn from others, and to apply acquired skills to everyday problems, all while having the time of his life. In a world that needs more difference makers, 4-H paves the way for change and empowers youth to lead.”

Parents interested in more information on 4-H for their children can contact Waskiewicz at (413) 545-0611 or send an email to [email protected].

“I’ve been working in 4-H for 38 years and am just as enthused about the program as I was the day I started,” said Waskiewicz.

On a related note, young people ages 5-18 who are enrolled in the Massachusetts 4-H Program will be able to participate in a Virtual State 4-H Fair slated Aug. 29 in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

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