The Finney County Fair is fast approaching, and for many it will present an opportunity for entertainment, food and a general sense of community.

For others, the fair is a time to the show the work they’ve been doing over the course of the year, whether it be ag-based or in the consumer sciences.

The fair hosts a number of different showcases and competitions where ribbons are awarded and people are recognized, but more than anything, it is a chance to unite in cameraderie and share in common interests.

For adults competing in the open class division, the fair is often a tradition steeped in time. But for the younger kids, the fair is an opportunity to show personal growth and have a little — or a lot — of fun along the way. And none of it would probably be possible for the youngsters without the 4-H club.

Essentially founded by A. B. Graham in Clark County, Ohio, in 1902, the seed of the 4-H Club was planted with the first extracurricular group of its kind, “The Tomato Club,” also known as the “Corn Growing Club." That same year, T.A. Erickson of Douglas County, Minn., kicked off a series of local ag-based, after-school clubs and fairs. Eight years later, Jessie Field Shambaugh coined a clover pin with an “H” on each leaf, and by 1912, the youth coteries had found their official name — 4-H clubs.

Not just grown on the farm

Since the start of the foundation, 4-H (the H's stand for head, heart, hands and health) has grown and in 2007, tallied about 90,000 clubs and more than 6.5 million members in the United Sates ages 5 to 21. Moving beyond a simple focus on agriculture, the organization now touts an emphasis on building life skills, confidence and compassion.

Tayla Cannella, Finney County Extension agent for 4-H youth development, can attest to the changes 4-H has seen over time. She says the club has gradually incorporated lifestyle skills that include cooking, sewing, citizenship and a burgeoning focus on science through rocketry, engineering, geology, entomology and STEM programs.

Cannella said a common misconception is that 4-H is a club reserved for farm kids. She explained that the club has actively attempted to debunk that myth and to “make sure that it’s inclusive of all kids from urban and rural backgrounds.”

Arts are factoring more into the 4-H design, as well, Cannella said, noting that there are opportunities in the visual arts and crafts, fiber arts, educational displays and self-determined project areas that give the 4-H’ers more autonomy in their direction.

“We have a lot of 4-H members that are heavily involved in the performing arts project, so that’s where they get to showcase that talent by doing a demonstration on some different dance techniques,” Cannella said, noting that ballet, tap and jazz have all factored into 4-H demonstrations at the Finney County Fair.

When asked if 4-H continues to grow, Cannella said nationwide membership has seen a historical decrease “because there is still the misconception that it’s only for farm kids.” She added that although there has been a “slight decrease” in 4-H enrollment in southwest Kansas, there is usually a new member to replace those that leave or age out.

“The program throughout the nation is working on making sure that there is an opportunity for every youth,” she said.

According to Cannella, the newest 4-H club in Finney County, the Tigers and Wildcats, was founded in 2013 and caters almost exclusively to the first-generation Hispanic, Spanish-speaking demographic.

In all, Finney County hosts seven clubs, including the Finney Flyers, the Happy Hustlers, the Kourageous Kids, the Sherlock Strivers, the Tigers and Wildcats, and Wide Awake. There is also a Cloverbud Club for kids ages 5 and 6 who want to get an early start in 4-H, and a 4-H Junior Leaders Group for youth ages 12 to 18.

According to Cannella, Wide Awake is the largest and oldest remaining club in the County, with a charter date of 1926. She said each club has a somewhat different focus, whether it be agriculture, community service or consumer sciences.

A lifetime commitment

No one has been involved in 4-H in Finney County longer than Connie Gross, who mentors club ambassadors. Now 72, Gross started 4-H in Hodgeman County when she was just 6. She moved to Finney County as she entered high school, and has been a staple of and leader in the Finney 4-H community ever since.

The new people and opportunities are what have kept Gross active in 4-H all these years.

“I think the main thing is, even though they’re not actually family members, 4-H is kind of family because once you get to know everybody you work together with them, you try to get more people involved. And with the older kids, it’s working with the younger ones, getting them involved and teaching them different things they can do,” she said. “A lot of times, the only borders they have are what they put on themselves.”

For Gross, it is crucial that 4-H teach young people lessons that they can take with them through life.

Gross has watched the changes in Finney County’s 4-H branch, the construction of the new buildings at the fairgrounds and the shifting enrollment. Through all of that vicissitude, she says one thing has not changed: 4-H is family.

“There are so many other projects now, like your citizenship projects and just your common growing,” she said. “It takes you outside with your citizenship. You learn about other people and how to make things better and try to promote being ‘more family’ than, ‘You’re over there and I’m over here.’ To me, 4-H is family. It has been for a long time.”

Gross watched her children and grandchildren move through 4-H and attain opportunities they may not have otherwise, she said. She says that although her grandchildren have aged out of the program, they still take an active role in helping those who are involved or interested in getting involved.

Through her leadership role, Gross teaches young people how to speak publicly, feel comfortable and sell ideas. She said the varied projects sponsored through 4-H facilitate social connection and personal growth. She says the growth of the 4-H program overall in Finney County “comes and goes,” but that she pushes her ambassadors “a little hard sometimes” to get the word out.

When asked what she would tell someone interested in getting involved in 4-H, she said, “I would say you’re going to have a lot of fun. You’re going to get frustrated at times. You’re going to meet a lot of people and learn a lot of new things. It just pushes you out of your usual borders.”

In the family

Historically, 4-H ambassadors attend the Finney County Fair every year to recruit new people to the club. For some families, 4-H is old news to them, and for others, they wish they had known about it sooner.

The Hutcheson family is one that has been involved in 4-H for a long time. Tammy Hutcheson, mother of Baylee, 12, and Jarica, 8, says she grew up as a Finney Flyer and then a Beacon Booster. Conversely, her kids started as Beacon Boosters, but now they’re Finney Flyers.

“My kids do everything,” Tammy said. “There are some that are just livestock, and there are some kids that are just on the other side, the consumer science side. But my kids do both.”

When asked what their favorite projects are in 4-H, Tammy’s daughters were in agreement.

“Cows,” Jarica said.

Baylee said they like working with steers, “because they’re big and fat.”

“And they taste good!” Tammy chimed in.

“No!!” Baylee said.

“When you have a 60-pound kid that’s 8 years old tugging around a 1,000-pound steer, that’s a lot to handle,” Tammy said, explaining that her daughters care for their steers from the time their three days old, bottle-feeding them four times a day, taking them to the fair and showing them.

Last year, Baylee won “Grand Champion” at the fair in steer-showing. She said the honor made her feel “amazing,” as she demurely tucked her hand beneath her chin.

Tammy explained that the kids are judged on how knowledgeable they are about the steer as a food source and what goes into raising it. Judges interview them, ask about how much they paid for their calves, what they feed them, how they maintain the pens, and more.

Baylee and Jarica will be bringing their year-old steers, Alvin and Theodore, to the fair this year, after which they will be shipped off to the feed yards. Their goats, which they liken to dogs, will be coming as well. Baylee named hers Eyelids.

Tammy said her side of the family have been involved in 4-H for a long time, noting that Gross is her aunt.

“I think that if you’re a part of it, you’re a part of it. And if you’re not, it’s just the county fair of like funnel cakes and things like that,” she said.

Baylee and Jarica agreed on something else — how much they love the club.

“It’s the best thing ever,” Baylee said.

“You get to meet a bunch of new friends and all,” Jarica added.

This year, the girls will be participating in events that include buymanship — which includes sewing and buying components of an outfit and eventually modeling those outfits on an improvised runway — gardening, arts and crafts, photography, cooking, cattle showing and goat showing.

The difference in the girls’ personalities was well demonstrated through their choice in what to sew for their runway looks. Baylee chose to create a 5-foot-long mermaid tail, and Jarica crafted soccer ball-patterned shorts with a faux fly stitched into the front.

When asked if 4-H was something they wanted to continue, Jarica said, “Yea!”

“And my kids will do it, and then their kids will do it,” Baylee said.

“I would suck as a mom. I want to be a football player,” Jarica said.

The girls exemplify the diversity in 4-H.

“The thing about 4-H I like is that it’s all-accepting,” Tammy said. “You don’t necessarily need to be the cool kid to be cool. It’s just, everybody is.”

A call for community service

For another family, 4-H is a fairly new venture, but one that has so far shown success. The Hammonds, who live North of Holcomb, don’t have a tradition of 4-H membership, but Delaina and Brandon Hammond’s daughters, Morgan and Makay, intend to start one.

Morgan, 13, has been involved in 4-H for six years, while Makay, 7, is in her first year. Makay said she is nervous about the fair, but Morgan said teachers at her school can usually identify a 4-H kid by their speaking skills and confidence.

Morgan and Makay are members of the Sherlock Strivers club, of which Delaina is a leader. Delaina said that this year, the Strivers are putting an added emphasis on community service.

In June, Morgan led a stuffed animal drive she started in 2015, when she donated more than 850 stuffed animals to Finney County EMS. The year before last year, Brandon said, she donated 1,400 animals to Finney County EMS, all in an effort to say thank you.

“Morgan got sick two years ago, had to be life-watched,” Brandon said. “They gave her a 30-percent chance to live.”

Brandon said Morgan was on a ventilator for seven days after she was diagnosed with strep throat, pneumonia, influenza B, and a consequential bout of septic shock. Brandon said EMS gave her a stuffed animal while she was ill, and the gesture meant so much to her that she wanted to give back — a lot.

Delaina said the Strivers gave out muffins to linemen working repair efforts after the blizzard on April 30. She said the club also crafted Christmas trees out of cupcake holders and took them to local nursing homes.

This year, Morgan will be participating in goat showing, cooking, rocketry, arts and crafts and buymanship. Makay will be doing the same events for the first time, minus the photography.

Morgan said she likes Rocketry the most. For Makay, she is most excited about the modeling component of buymanship.

“I have a jumpsuit and then I have a dress,” Makay said timidly when asked what she will be wearing.

Delaina said the misconception that 4-H is all about livestock can be problematic.

“Most of our clubs do have livestock members, but there are some that are mainly foods or flowers or buymanship,” she said.

Delaina said she wishes she would have been involved in 4-H when she was a kid. She explained that it “wasn’t advertised a lot” and that the misconception that it was oriented mostly around agriculture was prevalent.

“Now, you try to tell people it’s not just livestock,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s just a misconception everybody takes or what, but there is other fun stuff to it. If you’re into woodworking, we’ve got woodworking. If you’re into flowers, there are flowers. There is something out there for everyone.”

Morgan and Makay both agreed: They definitely want their children to be a part of 4-H when the time comes.

Brandon said the social engagements facilitated by 4-H are the biggest assets, noting that a 13-year-old probably would never speak to the school board out of the blue on his or her own.

“When she did her stuffed animal drive, she was the leader for that one, and I took her to the EMS,” Brandon said. “I walked in, but I didn’t say a word. She had to walk up to people she didn’t know, introduce, say this is what I’m doing. They went to the fire department. They went to the police department, sheriff’s department. So she’s learning to approach people and to have that confidence… I think it’s confidence that will carry her a long way.”

Recently, Morgan purchased a new camera with the money she earned by selling her goats. This year, she will be showing three more goats at the fair, and Makay will show two.

“They’ve raised them from birth, but like I said, it’s hard for them to see them go, but it’s a fact of life,” Morgan said. “We live within two miles of Tyson that does 2,000 a day. That’s how we live. So that’s a another lesson they learn through 4-H, that it’s tough, but it’s easier to let go of Snickers the goat than it is grandma.”

The Finney County Fair’s festivities will run this year from July 26 to 29 at the Finney County Fairgrounds. Attractions will include musical performances from the Jared Daniels Band and Phil Vandel, as well as ventriloquism by Kevin Horner, a hypnotism show, balloon art and a comedy variety show.

But through all the food, games and events, the fair also will serve as a testament to the betterment of young members of our community, who will work, play and be recognized for their dedication. Overall, the fair is just one example of how clubs like 4-H factor strongly into the community fabric.

For Brandon Hammond, it’s an opportunity for everyone.

“It’s a good opportunity for everybody to be involved, whether they’re involved actually through 4-H or involved just by going to the fair,” he said. “For our community, it’s one of the bigger things that happen.”