4-H Challenged Me helps kids make a new connection
A new peer-to-peer Michigan State University Extension Michigan 4-H program is giving mild to severely disabled children from Lapeer, Macomb, Tuscola and Sanilac counties the chance to show livestock at the Eastern Michigan State Fair. More important than the show itself, the “4-H Challenged Me” program provides children with the opportunity to be “just a kid” by giving them a day to forget about their differences and build relationships through a mutual love of animals.
Two innovative 4-H alumni, Tiffany Howell and Michelle Peel, were the masterminds behind the creation of the program, which launched July 2016. Peel is also the mother of a child with special needs, Memphis, who was a proud participant in this year’s program.
“I never got the chance to be a show mom, but now because of this program, my son is a fourth generation 4-H’er,” said Peel. “4-H Challenged Me helped me to reach my goal of my son being in 4-H, but the biggest impact for me was watching Memphis be just a kid. Not a kid in a wheelchair, just a kid who got to race around the tent with other kids. Memphis has never been able to be just a kid, and he was able to be just a kid that day showing a lamb and a pig.”
The inspiration for this peer-to-peer program came when Howell was watching Facebook videos about agriculture and stumbled upon a video of children showing livestock paired with other children that had special needs. This video sparked an idea for Howell to contact Peel and craft together a program for their own county. As a program that placed children with special needs around animals created additional liabilities and a necessity for proper safety precautions, the team formed a partnership with the local Intermediate School District social worker to provide expertise and support for working with special populations. Local MSU Extension 4-H program coordinator, Kathy George, provided assistance with the technicalities of liability needs.
“When these women approached me with this idea, I felt compelled to help them any way that I could,” said George. “I helped with the administrative management of ensuring forms were correct and connecting with resources in 4-H. They were so passionate about this project that they needed minimal input and support from the office.”
Once the program had been formally approved and the details sorted out, the women started recruiting current 4-H members to serve as coaches. These 4-H youth then actively began scouting new members, children with special needs, to be a part of the show. Many of the new members were not involved in 4-H or did not have the ability or means to have their own 4-H livestock projects and were recruited by friends who were actively involved in 4-H livestock projects who wanted to share their project with this special population.
After all the participants had been identified, the coaches and members practiced together for a month prior to the fair. For a majority of the special needs members, this was their first time showing an animal and coaches worked with the youth to teach them how to handle, train, show and care for the animals in the manner they had been trained through 4-H.
“All of the coaches treated the members with so much dignity and respect,” said Peel. “To know that there is a generation out there with empathy built in, is huge. As a parent, this is huge to know that there are good people in this world, and 4-H is helping to create this kind of good in our youth.”
“The coaches showed how remarkable 4-H’ers are and proved themselves to be more than just a kid,” said Howell.
When it came time for the big day, the 4-H Challenged Me program had 17 members, 19 coaches and numerous other youth actively volunteering and showing their support. Countless 4-H youth helped move animals, set up the arena and packed the stands with signs cheering on the members. During the event, member-and-coach teams were able to show goats, sheep and pigs.
“The barn was filled with a sense of pride and accomplishment,” said Howell. “This program captures what 4-H is all about. 4-H youth were never asked to help, they saw a job that needed to be done and they simply did it.”
“Every person at the show, about 250 people, had their hearts touched that day,” remarked George. “The support shown to the participants was beautiful and that’s why I love our community and 4-H for giving people the platform and support to make amazing things happen.”
After the fun of the fair was over, the program continued to have long-lasting effects. The relationships that were created among peers, practical life skills gained and the empathy exuded led to one of the members, Chris, to start working at his local Intermediate School District livestock barn. In addition, a few of the coaches decided to pursue a college degree in special education. Most recently, in January the 4-H Challenged Me Club was chosen as Program of Excellence by the American Farm Bureau Federation, a recognition for their innovative work in Lapeer County.
With such a successful first year in the books, the future looks bright for 4-H Challenged Me as they seek to expand. Next year, the program hopes to have a whole day of showing at the fair for their members and coaches and to add to their project lists both beef and rabbit projects. In addition, they would like to see the program expand statewide, as well as nationally. If you are interested in learning more about 4-H Challenged Me and how you can bring this program to the 4-H community where you live, contact your local MSU Extension office.