Oscar, part of the Midway Marvels Club, shows off his bass caught during the Bass Fishing Spin club event last June.

The central theme and slogan of the 4-H Club has been hands on, and learn by doing since O.J. Kern started a club in Winnebago County in 1902. Jessie Field Shambaugh developed the clover pin with an H on each leaf in 1910 representing head, heart, hands, and health.

By 1912 groups were formed and were beginning to be called 4-H Clubs. The intent was to make public school education more connected to country life. Rural youth programs became an innovative way to introduce agriculture technology to the communities.

Fast forward 121 years where countless young people across the United States are learning citizenship, leadership, and life skills by participating in over 80 fun activities to choose from. “The purpose of 4-H has been to build the leaders of tomorrow,” said Rebecca Gocken, Program Coordinator and Youth Development for Winnebago County. “While we certainly want agriculture-based livestock leaders, we now offer opportunities to learn robotics, and get an understanding of how electricity works through projects just to name a couple.”

The Illinois 4-H program is conducted by the University of Illinois Extension. Funding is provided from the United States Department of Agriculture, the state of Illinois, local county boards, and a variety of private donors.

Children ages 5 to 7 begin their journey as “Clover Buds.” In groups of 5 or more, these youngsters complete age appropriate projects to help introduce them to 4-H.

“Right around county fair time these kids go in front of a judge with their completed work to get comfortable talking in front of adults,” explained Gocken.”At this age we take the competitive nature of events out of it. They all receive participation ribbons which they proudly display.” At the age of 8 you are considered a full-fledged 4-H member and continue until age 18.

There are currently 13 clubs in Winnebago with names like; Burritt Winners, Clover Crusaders, Midway Marvels, Seward Determination, and Winnebago Wide Awakes. Meetings are held once a month and run by adult volunteers. Members learn how to get along with others and are taught problem solving, teamwork and communication.

All projects and activities culminate at the Winnebago County Fair held in Pecatonica. 4-H members work on displays for the fair along with preparing their livestock like prized chickens, rabbits, sheep, goats and pigs, as well as cows for the best in show competition. “The fair is their time to shine,” said Gocken. “They get to present and show their animals that they probably have raised and trained as a baby. It’s a testament to all of the hard work that they have put in the last year.” Gocken has the task of assigning all of the fair judges; purchasing the ribbons and trophies, while coordinating all of the shows and events. “It’s a fun busy time.”

Throughout the year Gocken is busy putting together clinics and training events. Recent activities included a Public Speaking seminar, a Blacksmithing demonstration through the Special Interest Club or Spin, where the members got to make shepherd hooks at the Midway Village Museum in Rockford, and a new event a pigeon racing clinic.

“There is a pigeon racing club in Rockford that contacted me and wanted the kids to come and experience this,” said Gocken with a laugh. “It goes back to World War II when the soldiers sent notes on carrier pigeons. The club holds races in the spring and fall. The pigeons have a microchip and are timed going to designated areas.” 4-H also offers scholarship opportunities to members who have aged out and can use the funds to pay for college tuition and books.  One longtime member is approaching that stage and looks back fondly on his experiences.

Campbell Russo started as a 5 year old clover bud and followed in his older sister’s footsteps. He’s taken full advantage of everything 4-H has to offer. Now a senior in high school, he’s the President of the Midway Marvels, is a summer camp counselor, and got a once in a lifetime chance to spend a month in Norway through the 4-H Youth Leadership Team International Exchange program. “It was such an awesome learning experience to be a part of another country’s culture and traditions,” he said.

“I gained new friendships and it’s something that I will never forget. I’m very grateful to 4-H.”

Russo’s dedication to 4-H and his commitment to community service didn’t go unnoticed. He was the recipient of the Winnebago County 4-H senior member of the year in 2022. “He’s a special young man and worthy of the award,” Gocken remarked.

“I would go every year to the awards ceremony and would be inspired by the winners,” said Russo. “Now for me to be recognized is special and I appreciate the honor.”  “When I get the chance to talk with kids that are thinking about joining 4-H I always share that it will be the best decision that they will ever make. They will get the chance to do things that they won’t get anywhere else and make lifelong friends.”

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