As the 585 Franklin County 4-H members are recognized during National 4-H Week, Oct. 6-12, it’s doubtful any of them are thinking ahead 30 years or more to what their lives would be like without their 4-H experiences.
But three former county 4-H’ers, each with 10 years of membership, look back on their 4-H years as one of the most important parts of their lives that led directly to their careers.
Here in Kansas, Diane Cooper-Burnett is the Family and Consumer Sciences agent in Miami County and Pam VanHorn is Kansas State Extension 4-H specialist based at Kansas State University in Manhattan. Way up north, Becky Vining-Koch is director of Agriculture Communication at North Dakota State University at Fargo.
As 4-H members, each woman had her favorite projects. The traditional most popular projects of that time — the 1970s — included foods, clothing, livestock and citizenship. For the 4-H year now ending, the most popular projects are foods, shooting sports, visual arts and photography, Kylie Dicket, Frontier District 4-H Agent, said. (The Frontier District includes Franklin and Osage Counties.)
4-H is about learning — using the head, heart, hands and health — and the three former members who now are in extension work have completed a great deal of learning, and continue to teach in many ways.
After 10 years of 4-H in Berea Boosters 4-H Club in Richmond, Cooper-Burnett earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics education from Emporia State and was a substitute teacher while raising her family of three children. Her extension work began in 1990 for five years, transferring to her present position as Family and Consumer Sciences agent in Miami County in 1995, for a total of 23 years.
Clothing, foods and leadership were her favorite 4-H projects, and all three have contributed to her successful career. Cooper-Burnett said she had excellent 4-H leaders, especially the late Alma Wagner, whose philosophy was that it’s the member’s development that’s most important and not the color of the ribbon received on a fair entry.
Ironically, Wagner was the extension agent, then called home demonstration agent, in Miami County before her marriage and move to Richmond.
Family togetherness is a key in 4-H work, and Cooper-Burnett firmly believes that although project work is done by the member, it takes a supportive family, especially parents, to gain the most from all parts of 4-H.
“One of the best things of 4-H is that we all worked together and helped each other,” she said about her family of parents and four siblings. Her parents are Dorothy Cooper, now of Ottawa, and the late Bob Cooper. Both were project leaders and were “always there to help.”
“For us, 4-H was a family affair,” she said. “And that’s probably one of the main reasons I learned so much and developed leadership skills to share that knowledge.”
Most Family and Consumer Sciences agents have a specialty, and Cooper-Burnett turned to family finance. She earned a master’s degree in family financial planning from K-State in 2004 and finds working in that area gives her much satisfaction. One of her tasks is to assist Medicare beneficiaries in choosing the best supplemental insurance.
Another rewarding project was to co-pilot a Master Food Volunteer Program that was touted as a first and best in the nation in 2002.
She received too many awards and recognitions to list, but keeps herself grounded by always knowing that her job is to provide leadership and technical expertise in the development and implementation of research-based education under the framework of the K-State Extension Service.
Cooper-Burnett also is Miami County Extension director and is responsible for all administrative duties and budget management, provides leadership for all program areas and agents. It’s a huge responsibility, but one she thrives on and truly enjoys
Pam VanHorn said her 4-H years offered the opportunity to meet people and have a variety of experiences that have impacted the rest of her life. She also formed a good foundation for being on the K-State Dairy Judging team.
The daughter of Dale and the late Zelma VanHorn, Wellsville, she was in Full-O-Pep 4-H Club for 10 years, where her favorite projects were dairy, foods and knitting.
Armed with a bachelor’s degree from K-State, VanHorn began her extension career as 4-H agent in Saline County for 23 years and has been on the state 4-H staff for seven years for a total of 30 years. Her main responsibilities are livestock and horse liason for all kinds of activities, also Kansas Award Portfolio, Key Award, scholarship, National 4-H Congress, camp program and working closely with Rock Springs 4-H Center.
“The most rewarding part of what I do is to see young people and sometimes adult volunteers grow through the program, especially when they think the challenges were impossible and yet they are successful,” she said. “The most discouraging part is when winning becomes more important than the educational experience or value.”
She earned a master’s degree in adult and continuing education at K-State in 1996.
VanHorn now is serving as president of the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents and has received numerous recognitions, including the 4-H Meritorious, Distinguished and Achievement Service awards.
Her words of wisdom are that extension work is not about you, the employed person, but it’s finding strengths in others and allowing them to learn and grow to become successful 4-H members or volunteers.
VanHorn looks back on her years as a 4-H member as some of the most worthwhile years of her life, and now as a state 4-H specialist, she’s using many of the skills she learned then as she works with current 4-H members and leaders.
Kansas 4-H has the goal of teaching youth life skills of positive self-concept; an inquiring mind; a concern for community, healthy interpersonal relationships and sound decision-making. These skills are practical and are the foundation of a good, well-rounded life, she explained. She’s grateful to have an opportunity to contribute to a great program: 4-H.
“Public speaking was my favorite 4-H project because it was fun to share information about my swine and soybean projects at the time,” Vining-Koch said. “I didn’t realize how important that skill would be, but it’s truly a life skill that was nurtured by 4-H,”
She has been with the North Dakota State University Agriculture Communication Deptartment for 22 years and department head since 2007. In this position, she leads a staff of 24 who write and edit publications, prepare video conferences and much more, covering family and consumer sciences, youth (including 4-H), community development and other areas in addition to agriculture.
“We’re all about teaching people through a variety of skills, not to sell something, but to help them learn, improve or change their lives,” Vining-Koch said.
Her most satisfying work has been with disaster education. Although surprising to many, North Dakota has suffered from river flooding several times and it’s rewarding to know that information provided by the Agriculture Communication Department has helped the public as they build sand bag dikes or have taken care of problems that go with flooding.
The department was recognized last month by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the White House for two disaster education phone apps it developed. One was a Winter Survival Kit guide and the other a Disaster Recovery Log. Vining-Koch was at the White House to accept these awards on behalf of her department and to teach a class to top FEMA staff.
She also developed the North Dakota Ag Mag for grade school students and helps plan or direct all kinds of communications.
She now is serving as president of the Association for Communication Excellence (ACE), the professional organization for extension and others in research and ag-related groups.
Vining-Koch’s college majors were the best possible preparation for the position she now has: a bachelor’s in ag journalism and a master’s in adult and continuing education. She also worked for the Kansas Wheat Commission and Kansas Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom for short times.
She is the daughter of Gene and Pat Vining, Richmond, and was a member of Berea Boosters 4-H Club where her top award was to attend National 4-H Congress as an alternate national winner in public speaking.
These three women agree that some of their best role models were the Franklin County extension agents at the time they were in 4-H. For Cooper-Burnett, it was Ross Nelson and Carol (Grigsby) Bozworth; for VanHorn and Vining-Koch, the 4-H agent was Susan Verdoorn, now Sachse, and they all three remember agricultural agent Bob Bozworth with much affection.
In thinking about these girls, now career women, and 4-H in general, Sachse said, “I believe 4-H offers the best possible training for good people skills and to learn acceptance of people of diversity. In addition, there is a wide variety of projects, and each member can succeed at his or her own level.”
Several extension staff workers have said it is unusual to have three professional persons from the same county and same general time period with long careers in extension, but such is the case with these three.
Pat Vining is a Richmond resident.