4-H Programs in Michigan juvenile institutions

Juvenile institutions are a great place for 4-H programs, giving the youth there access to experiential learning and development opportunities.

All youth should have the opportunity to belong to a 4-H Club. Starting a Michigan State University Extension 4-H Club within a juvenile institution is a great opportunity to offer positive youth development programming for youth at risk. According to the Journal of Extension’s article “What Incarcerated Youth Say Would Help Them Succeed: Can Extension Play a Role,” “In many juvenile justice systems, very few inside-facility or reentry programs are offered to youth. Not preparing these youth to succeed is an invitation to having them repeat the mistakes of their pasts. Extension professionals’ expertise in program development, delivery and evaluation can be a great asset to this often-over-looked ‘at risk’ youth audience. “

In 1988, the first meeting of the Campus Kids 4-H Club was called to order at Lenawee County’s Maurice Spear Campus Detention Unit. The “Campus” is a court-operated juvenile detention and treatment facility directed toward 13 to 17 year-old court adjudicated delinquents of both genders with educational, emotion and behavioral problems.

Monthly meetings are held 10 months out the year, with an average of 12 students attending. Last year, approximately 108 incarcerated boys and girls learned about 4-H through crafts, animals, cooking and recycling projects, in addition to benefitting from the knowledge of special guests speakers.

The benefits of the program are evident when one hears about the students who used their 4-H cooking experiences and accompanying certificate to get a job in a restaurant or to earn credit in their home economics class, a valuable achievement they can put to use once they complete their incarcerated time and return to their high schools. According to Joanne Claflin, Maurce Spear Campus Director, “The 4-H program at Maurice Spear Campus is an integral, valuable component in helping youth become involved in positive projects and interactions with community volunteers.”

Although the club began as an activity-based program, the leadership component has been the main focus. Each month a different student assumes the roles of president, vice president and secretary. Participants learn about being part of a club, serving in a leadership role and the correct procedures for running a meeting.

Maurice Spear Campus administration has been generous in their support of staff time and food donations to make the program a success. Three community members assist the staff in the leadership role of the club. The leaders strongly believe in the youth and in the power of 4-H to develop positive self-esteem, improve decision-making skills and influence youth to become responsible adults who will work toward a peaceful global future.

In the 24 years of existence, more than 2,000 teenage youth have recited the 4-H pledge and promised “to make the best better” during a very troubled time in their lives. As each youth is released from their incarceration, they leave with a connection to a positive youth development program that will embrace their involvement if they choose to continue on a path of positive youth behavior. The goal of this program is to reach youth during a challenging time in their lives, and make a connection that will make a difference. Youth that have been incarcerated are a prime example of the motto of 4-H, “To make the best better.” Youth are the best – sometimes they just need redirection to make them better!

For more information about how to begin a program in a juvenile institution, contact a MSU Extension educator.