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Extension coordinator Andrea Ruesch holds signs promoting 4-H at her office in Lakefield. (BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE)

Ruesch gives 4-H a big boost

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LAKEFIELD -- Andrea Ruesch knows exactly when she started work as Jackson County 4-H Program Coordinator, helping kids and families learn and develop leadership skills together.

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"March 1, 2005 -- and I only count because I love it," Ruesch said. "I consider myself extremely fortunate to be in Jackson County, (because of) the support, the traditions and the willingness of families to do 4-H."

Ruesch was a dedicated 4-H'er during her time growing up on a Nobles County farm.

She graduated from Worthington High School in 1991. She received her undergraduate degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead in mass communications, with a focus on public relations, and did graduate work at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities and Moorhead.

A graduate of the 4-H youth development program, Ruesch always knew she wanted to work with people, and when she had the chance to become a 4-H summer assistant in Chippewa County, she jumped at the chance.

"I wanted to go to a place where I would get to do more than make posters," Ruesch said. "I wanted a real-life, hands-on experience."

She kept the job for three years, helping organize the county fair, reaching out to a broad youth audience through summer day camps and checking up on and assisting 4-H'ers with projects for the county fair. She even went to the Minnesota State Fair with her students.

"I absolutely loved it," Ruesch said of her time in Chippewa County, which helped her decide to continue working with 4-H.

More than 6.5 million students in America are part of 4-H, learning leadership, citizenship and life skills through county fair projects, hands-on educational activities and community service.

The organization's name refers to the four H-words and corresponding values stated in the 4-H pledge: "I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world."

In Minnesota, 4-H is a program of the University of Minnesota Extension, which delivers educational programs throughout the state.

Though 4-H is historically associated with agriculture and farming communities, 4-H welcomes all students, offering a wide variety of programming and project choices, from robotics and rabbits to clowning and crafts.

The variety in projects and of the students in 4-H -- young and old, town and country kids all get involved in the organization -- mean that Ruesch is always busy, often juggling five or six tasks at a time.

"I like the fact that it's a challenge to keep up with kids, and I think we're very fortunate to live in southwest Minnesota and have all these opportunities," she said of her work as 4-H program coordinator. "It's never dull when you're working with kids, and I love that. You never know what they're going to come up with."

Ruesch also gets to work with students of almost all ages, because kids can join 4-H as Cloverbuds at age 5 and stay in 4-H throughout the first year of college.

Some of those 4-H'ers later become volunteers with the program, meaning Ruesch works with parents and grandparents, too -- a fitting task for someone who wanted to major in people in college.

Though many groups foster leadership skills and community participation in kids, 4-H is unique in its emphasis on family participation. In traditional 4-H community clubs, kids attend meetings with their families, meaning 4-H is youth-led but adultsupported.

One of Ruesch's tasks is coordinating the traditional 4-H clubs and the adult volunteers who make the program possible.

"What I do is what the families want me to do," Ruesch said. "It really is the kids' program. I get the opportunity to help coordinate it."

Ruesch estimates there are about 80 people who formally volunteer for 4-H in Jackson County alone, filling out paperwork to become official 4-H helpers. In addition to that, at least 45 people volunteer informally, helping out with the county fair and giving their time and effort to make 4-H programs happen.

Ruesch also manages and oversees the resources of the county's 4-H programs, including finances and curriculum and research materials.

Youths and adults are elected to help advise Ruesch on what they believe the program needs, helping Jackson County's 4-H set goals. The advisers also suggest new activities and programs to try out, acting on the goal in the 4-H motto: "To make the best better."

Ruesch also coordinates the county's 4-H Adventures, a concept initiated by University of Minnesota Extension in late 2003, which took shape in 2004.

"It's a mini-blast of fun for all youths in the after-school setting, for all youths, 4-H'ers and non-4-H'ers," Ruesch said.

Students don't have to join an official, traditional 4-H club to participate in 4-H Adventures. Instead, they can opt in or out for specific adventures, which occur once a month in Heron Lake, Lakefield and Jackson.

The 4-H Adventures cover a range of topics, but always include snacks and fun, hands-on projects, right in line with the 4-H slogan, "Learn by doing."

January's 4-H Adventures theme was "Life's a Beach," and participants had a beach party, made sand art and sun visors and learned about sun safety.

February's adventure was a "Snack Attack," in which adults showed students how to make healthy nutritious snacks. Kids made aprons and created their own cookbooks. More than 100 students attended 4-H Adventures in February.

Almost 30 students attended Snack Attack in Lakefield alone, learning how to safely use knives and to wash their hands before preparing food.

"We ran out of vegetables," Ruesch said with a smile, noting how difficult it can be to get kids to eat vegetables at all under normal circumstances.

Some of the students get into 4-H Adventures and eventually join traditional 4-H clubs, but even those who don't join clubs get some of the benefits of 4-H.

"The neat part for us is that we're still reaching kids and we're reaching new audiences. We've been successful in recruiting kids for our program from that," Ruesch said. "... They're showing up in a great program where they're going to develop life skills."

4-H tracks every student it comes into contact with, and in the 2007-2008 school year, 1,851 contacts were made. About 1/7 of the students in Jackson County have participated in 4-H Adventures, including half the students at Southwest Star Concept School.

"The bottom line is that they and their parents want to be a part of something positive," Ruesch said.

4-H Adventures helps kids stay involved because educators take the program to students where they already are -- at school.

4-H Adventures has been such a success that the 4-H day camps have changed. Instead of losing students during the summer months and having to build up participation in 4-H all over again in the fall, Jackson County 4-H now offers four day camp opportunities in the summer months.

Kids in 4-H Adventures stick with the program in summer as part of the day camp setting.

"In the last three years, we've welcomed 147 new members to Jackson County 4-H," Ruesch said. "Our goal (this year) is to welcome 50 new members and retain 90 percent of eligible members."

The group loses students to graduation every year, but still has 325 enrolled members -- and that doesn't include the kids who participate in 4-H Adventures.

The biggest age group in Jackson County is first-year college students, which is atypical compared to statewide statistics but offers a testament to the dedication of Jackson County families in keeping the 4-H program going.

"To have recruited and retained those young people to that ultimate last year of eligible membership? I think that's a credit to the program and to the families that are involved," Ruesch said, describing the county's unparalleled commitment and community support for 4-H.

4-H has also continued to expand its program offerings, allowing kids to submit county fair projects in robotics, Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and aerospace.

"We've recognized that technology continues to play a significant role in the life of kids," Ruesch said. "... we're trying to keep up with kids, offering them more project areas, which is exciting."

Livestock projects continue to be extremely popular, but they, too, are expanding, allowing for llamas in addition to the traditional beef, dairy, swine, sheep and poultry projects.

"We live in southwest Minnesota, and there are so many opportunities for kids," Ruesch said, noting that her students are now involved in many activities, not just 4-H, and often have two parents working outside the home. "(Families) get to set the priorities, and we just hope we get to be one of the priorities -- and that means we need to be flexible."

Ruesch has always appreciated 4-H's focus on life skills, teamwork, leadership development and community service.

"It was 4-H that shaped me and my career choice," she said. "I always tell my parents that one of the best gifts they ever gave me was letting me be in 4-H."

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