One of the things that amazes me about kids is their ability to love others. Add a little confidence, introduce them to a few people, and watch out – they are ready to change the world! As we celebrate 4-H Week and the power of our young people, I couldn’t resist sharing one of my favorite 4-H experiences.
This story started four years ago, when my now 12-year-old daughter, Olivia, went with her 4-H club to put on a fun carnival for the residents of Maple Point Assisted Living Facility in a nearby town. I remember spending most of that day keeping our baby occupied while the kids played games with the residents. However, in the chaos, I noticed Olivia had a special gift for connecting with the residents. As we drove home that day, she said she didn’t want that to be the last day with her new friends at Maple Point.
So, it wasn’t. She wrote letters, spent time with her new friends at Maple Point and encouraged her siblings to follow suit. During that same year, she took a 4-H project called “Walk In My Shoes” where she learned about the differences between her generation and older generations. She chose to do her project on her great grandma, Ruthie. Around this time, Grandma Ruthie had to give up independent living to move into a nursing home. This was a difficult time in my grandma’s life and Olivia was very worried.
Getting to know new friends at Maple Point helped both of us. It reminded me of the important job that we have to take care of the elderly and helped Olivia see the good things that come from community life. During her second year of 4-H, Olivia enrolled in the citizenship project and decided to find a way to help her friends out at Maple Point even more.
She decided to make blankets to remind the residents that others care for them. She created a plan – a plan that cost nearly $500 and would require many hours of work. She had to find help to complete it. She made a pitch for financial support to the Champaign County Extension Education Foundation and was overjoyed when they donated $250 to her “Blanket Buddies” project. She then asked her 4-H Club to help with the remaining costs to make the blankets and assist in the blanket-making and distributing effort.
After her club completed 34 blankets that spring, Olivia helped organize a one-hour event at Maple Point to present the blankets. The club even had a special 4-H display the week before the event to showcase their projects and bring a little “county fair” to the residents. In addition to distributing blankets, 4-H members also shared about their projects, served refreshments, and simply spent time visiting.
Our son, Hunter, met Willard that day. And, oh did they have fun telling stories to each other! The smiles on both of their faces were priceless. At one point, I watched Willard pull him close for a hug and whisper, "I’ll never forget you, Hunter. Promise me that you will never forget me.” I couldn’t help but feel a little overwhelmed by the moment. And that was just one of many I experienced that day where I was reminded of the power of one small voice.
Even our youngest daughter, Harper, made a connection with a resident. Helen is blind, so understandably some of our activities were harder for her to experience in the same way the others did. Even though she was only 2, Harper still made a difference that day holding Helen’s hand and bringing a smile to Helen’s face.
Before we left, Olivia encouraged the 4-H members to be pen pals with one of their new friends they had met that day in stage two of her plan to give back to Maple Point. Nearly 2/3 of the residents were paired up with a 4-H member who wrote them letters and invested in their lives in some small way.
Last year, Olivia organized a 4-H talent show at Maple Point in stage three of her plan. Based on what she had learned from the residents, she knew that they cherished time with the kids most of all. She chose to organize a talent show that would allow 4-Hers to share time and talents. Her 4-H club invited another 4-H club so they could experience the joy of working with the elderly. Again, she learned many lessons, most of all that enthusiasm is contagious.
4-H opens doors, creates opportunities, and helps our young people do things they may never do otherwise. What took place four years ago did far more than bless 34 residents of Maple Point with goodies during a carnival. I’m not sure anyone walked away unchanged.
As Olivia said in her 4-H project story, “You don’t have to be an adult to make a difference. All you need is a little courage, an idea, and someone who believes in you.”