WOODSTOCK, Ill. — Michele Aavang has an idea for busy families looking for something they can do together.
The 4-H program could be the answer, said Aavang, the McHenry County 4-H youth development program coordinator.
She is not just trying to drum up numbers for the youth program, which saw a drop-off in numbers from before the pandemic.
The program also saw fewer adult volunteers following COVID-19. Those volunteers are needed to ensure youth can continue to learn from adults with specialized knowledge.
“We need to embrace and bring people in at both levels to keep the youth program thriving into the future,” Aavang said.
Heidi Vanderstappen of Hebron is an example of the generational nature of 4-H. She is co-leader of the 62-member Hebron Helping Hands 4-H club.
She didn’t grow up on a farm. But she was part of the same club.
Vanderstappen has been a volunteer leader there for nine years, since her oldest child, now 17, joined. As her youngest child is 11, she has another seven years of club leadership planned.
In addition to her 4-H work, Vanderstappen has a job and is also a high school volleyball and softball coach, a high school lunchroom volunteer mom and runs her three children to sports practice.
Volunteers can be club leaders like Vanderstappen. They can also be part-time, holding one-day clinics in their area of expertise, Aavang said.
She said the volunteers they have are amazing and didn’t want to downplay how important their work is to the current programs.
But right now, they are also down a program volunteer when a previous STEM person stepped away when social distancing made Zoom club meetings the norm.
The pandemic also may have lowered their overall numbers. There are about 400 youth in McHenry County 4-H programs right now, down from 600 in 2019, Aavang said.
Part of that drop came from a large cohort of students aging out. As children age out, their parents and grandparents often step away from the youth enrichment program, too, Aavang said.
The program needs volunteers with expertise in any of the 10 general project areas. Those categories include everything from aerospace to woodworking.
The McHenry County Fair, which was held Aug. 2-7, is the “Super Bowl” of 4-H participation, Aavang said.
As a 4-H leader, Vanderstappen helps the kids when they run into problems on their projects.
“There is a project for everybody,” Vanderstappen said.
In July, 4-H members in the archery program took aim at their targets to earn their fair ribbons. Another barn held a dog show for the students and animals that spent a year training together.
4-H members and their leaders from other clubs were getting the animal barns ready for the fair.
Tom Linneman of Hebron was directing teens to which animal barns were ready for a cleanup.
Another long-time 4-H member before he became a volunteer, Linneman is now a part-time firefighter at two area districts.
His time in 4-H taught him public speaking and presentation skills that now come into his work life, Linneman said.
He encourages his own children to invite friends to a club meeting to see what they might like to try.
“‘They can figure out if they are passionate about agriculture, or canning, or dogs, or beehives. See if they are interested. Then, we expect parents to tag along,” Linneman said.