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Renee McKee sets tone for changes in today's 4-H program

Renee McKee sets tone for changes in today's 4-H program
New spark program gets raving reviews by educator who tired it.

Renee McKee has led Indiana 4-H since 2003. She’s also an assistant director of Extension, reporting directly to Jason Henderson, the director. One of her challenges is convincing people that 4-H today can’t just be about traditional projects and the county fair. It must also be relevant for kids in other segments of society.

“Our mission is providing real-life opportunities to help young people build skills for their future,” McKee said. “Our mission is not the county fair and showing exhibits.”

Related: State 4-H leaders addresses changes in the program

LEADER REFLECTS: Renee McKee insists reaching out to new audiences is what 4-H must do. The new Spark initiative is a tool which helps educators take 4-H to non-traditional kids.

McKee’s background makes her ready for the challenge. She grew up in Anderson and was in 4-H. Professionally, she has held positions in Extension since 1977, when she became a Purdue Extension educator in Carroll County.  She took a brief break to finish her master’s degree and returned to Extension in 1981 in Warren County. Both are relatively rural counties. McKee took the position as state 4-H program leader and assistant director of Extension in 2003.

One new thing that 4-H implemented for 2016 is the ‘Spark’ club or experience. It’s intended to spark interest in what 4-H can be, and focuses on specific types of things that young people come together to learn. These new Spark programs will allow new volunteers that are working professionals to meet with a group of kids about a specific topic for six weeks.

“These programs are not intended to undo or replace our longstanding 4-H programs and experiences- they’re intended to enhance them,” said McKee.

Making the change

Not everyone may yet be getting her message that 4-H must change, but some people definitely are. Melissa Merida, an Extension educator in Floyd County, told a recent gathering of 4-H judges and volunteers at a clinic in Seymour that the Spark program works!

Merida says that three years ago, 4-H enrollment in Floyd County was down to 60 members. Something had to change, and professionals and volunteers began looking for ways to reach the non-traditional audience, which makes up a large part of the population in her area. Spark is one program that fits the bill.

“We taught a sewing class recently as part of that effort,” she says. “Kids came to learn how to sew - not to make something to exhibit. We didn’t even talk about 4-H until near the end of our sessions together.

Related: Did you know? 4-H in Africa

“Here’s the cool part. A girl who has never been in 4-H from the city got a sewing machine for Christmas. Her mom found out about our group and asked if she could join in. She came to the last several meetings, and brought her new sewing machine. She was excited, and the other kids helped her out. Pretty soon she was asking if she could do other activities they were doing. She didn’t look like them or come from the same environment, but it was a great experience for all of them.”

Merida is leaving Extension to become county director of the library system, but she’s not forgetting about what’s she’s learned working with kids. Enrollment in 4-H in Floyd County has passed 150, with many more attending non-traditional programs.

“Programs like Spark are a great way to engage kids,” she says. “It works.”

McKee couldn’t agree more. She would appreciate comments of a member of the Ohio County Fair Board who attended the meeting. “4-H is not about the fair,” he said. “It’s about the kids and what they learn.”

Perhaps McKee is making more progress than she realizes!

- Mulvey is a senior in Purdue Ag Communicaitons.

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