HOUGHTON - Karen Connors recently joined the staff with the Michigan State University-Extension as the 4-H program coordinator for Baraga, Houghton and Keweenaw counties.
Connors, originally from Norfolk, Va., was a teacher for Norfolk Public Schools for 16 years before relocating to the area. After opening her own child care center and closing the facility five years later, she saw the job posting for the 4-H coordinator position and applied.
"The focus of our school system was that activities needed to be relevant so the kids would want to learn them, all components of the 4-H program. So when I read about that, it was exciting to find a program that is exactly what I was looking for," Connors said.
As 4-H coordinator, Connors promotes the 4-H youth development program, trains and assists volunteers, recruits youth and fields questions from the public.
One of the ways Connors hopes to introduce additional youth to the 4-H program is through clearing up misconceptions, specifically that 4-H is just for those with animals.
"Some people think that 4-H is just for animals, but there are opportunities for project participation with adventure education, clothing and textiles, nutrition, personal development, science and technology, (and) communicative and expressive art," she said. "There are a lot of other things that 4-H can offer for people that may not be interested strictly in animals."
Besides projects, youth can attend various 4-H meetings within each of the counties. In Houghton and Keweenaw counties, youth can choose from project-focused clubs, explorer clubs, community service clubs, activity-based 4-H clubs, and an anything goes club that bases activities on the member's interests.
Although there are a wide variety of active 4-H clubs, Connors would like to offer up new ideas.
"I would like to go to the colleges and find college students who are interested in sharing their skills and abilities like technology or sports or something else they're interested in," Connors said.
Speaking with business and restaurant owners about hosting 4-H club meetings is another potential direction for the 4-H program to go with Connors in the lead.
"It would be great to see a restaurant owner who would like a group of kids in the club to meet and talk about what is involved in running a restaurant," Connors said.
For community members who would like to join the 4-H program but don't see a club that is of interest, starting a club is simple.
"To have a club, there only have to be five members from two or more families with at least six activities per year with at least one adult volunteer," Connors said.
For youth who are interested in traveling, 4-H has opportunities for conferences and youth development both state and nationally.
"We send a contingency from each county down to campus every summer as part of Exploration Days where they spend a couple of nights down on the MSU campus and have educational programs there," said Mike Schira, Houghton County Extension educator.
To participate in Exploration Days, youth must be 11 years old, while 4-H participants interested in going to the capitol for 4-H Capitol Experience must be 14 years old.
"Through Capitol Experience, youth go to Lansing to meet with state legislators," Schira said.
High school-aged 4-H members have one final opportunity for a national trip to Washington D.C. as part of Citizenship Washington Focus, where youth can strengthen their leadership skills and understand civic responsibilities in their communities and also have the opportunity to visit historic sites in the nation's capitol.
"We've also had youth go to Japan on exchange and had families host students from Japan," Schira said.
Scholarships are available to 4-H youth interested in attending these conferences from the local 4-H council.
In addition to providing scholarships, the 4-H council sponsors various countywide activities throughout the year, which have included fishing, kayaking and assistance at the CopperDog.
Connors sees 4-H as a benefit to the youth, volunteers and the community.
"4-H is important because children that participate do better in school. They are 25 percent more likely to participate in the community. And they're learning about things like diversity and multiculturalism," Connors said.
Although the 4-H program is youth-focused, family involvement is also important.
"4-H tends to be a more family-oriented activity than a lot of other youth programs," Schira said. "It helps to build stronger citizens. The projects are good, but they also learn duties, responsibilities and bookkeeping that help to build life-skills."
In the state of Michigan alone, there are 25,000 adults who volunteer for 4-H.
"Michigan 4-H volunteers contribute an average of 5.5 hours per week to their local 4-H program and that's an average of 286 hours per year in support of youth development," Connors said.
Connors and the Houghton and Keweenaw 4-H Council will host an Open House on December 12 from 4 to 7 p.m. in the Houghton County Arena Sisu Room. The event will serve as a meet and greet for Connors to meet with 4-H members and leaders and to get input on what the community would like to see 4-H do.
"I want to help everyone feel welcome and let everyone know that (4-H is) here," she said.
Families and youth interested in joining a 4-H club can contact Connors at firstname.lastname@example.org. Connors is also available by phone in Houghton County Monday and Wednesday at 482-5830 and in Baraga County on Tuesday and Thursday at 524-6300.