COLUMBIA — South Carolina 4-H Legislative Day is an annual opportunity for youth across the state to share their 4-H experiences with lawmakers, and the stories of growth and inspiration are often as unique and diverse as they communities they represent.
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More than 350 4-H’ers, family members and Clemson Cooperative Extension agents registered to make the trip to the capital city for the event, as March 10, 2020, was declared 4-H day at the state capitol by House resolution.
Greenville County Teen Council president Haleigh Tomlin said the story she would share with lawmakers was one of perseverance and passion. A second-generation 4-H’er, Tomlin joined the program as an 8-year-old but, after the disappointment of falling short in her bid for a state leadership position, found herself questioning her commitment.
“But 4-H has let me know I always have a support system behind me,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, my family are big supporters, but behind them is Patricia Whitener, my county agent. After I lost my election for State Teen Council this past summer, I wanted to give up in 4-H. But she encouraged me to keep going and convinced me that one election does not determine who you are … and the people like that are the people who keep kids interested and engaged in 4-H.”
Tomlin said she also struggled with severe social anxiety “for a long time,” but through 4-H has risen above those issues and found the confidence to take on new leadership opportunities within the club.
“I was able to get on the State Teen Council and meet the legislative liaison, I’ve been president and vice president of both the Greenville County Teen Council and Stablemates 4-H Horse Club,” she said. “And now I promote 4-H in my platform, ‘Let’s Grow Some Leaders: Educating Youth About 4-H,’ through the Miss America program. So, I will go to represent 4-H on the Miss South Carolina stage later this summer.”
South Carolina 4-H Youth Development uses a learn-by-doing approach to help youth gain the knowledge and skills to be responsible, productive and contributing members of society by creating safe and inclusive learning environments, the involvement of caring adults, and utilizing the expertise and resources of Clemson University and the nationwide land-grant university system.
For Travis Merritts, from Florence County, what began as an opportunity to hang out with friends at school became an eye-opening experience in determining his future career path.
While visiting local hospitals during only his second meeting as a 4-H’er, Merritts said one of the medical disciplines the young people were exposed to was physical therapy, which — as an avid athlete — piqued his interest.
“My experience has been great with 4-H,” Merritts said. “It’s opened me to a lot of different career opportunities, and I’ve met a lot of new people through this program. 4-H has definitely taught me the skills of being a leader and not being afraid to try new things. I want to go to college for physical therapy and, through 4-H, I’ve found my love for that.”
While Merritts was a relative newcomer to 4-H when it began to impact him, Marilyn Easter said she’s seen the ways 4-H can affect young people for decades.
Now a longtime volunteer leader in Laurens County with the 4-H Dairy Club, Easter said she has been involved with the program continuously since she began as a 4-H member in 1955.
“I always said if I could give back to the program what it gave to me, my time on this Earth was well spent,” Easter said. “(4-H Legislative Day) is an opportunity for these 4-H’ers to see our government at work and at the same time have government see actually what we are doing with the 4-H program throughout South Carolina. It’s a wonderful program that teaches a lot of the soft skills and life skills, hands-on experience and a lot of great leadership and community service.”
Laurens County 4-H Teen Council member Olivia Lyda became involved with the program in the fourth grade by joining the Jr. Master Gardener Club at her elementary school.
“From then on, I just fell in love with 4-H and what it stood for,” she said. “It helped me grow as a person and grow my confidence in myself and grow my confidence in others. I think 4-H builds great leadership skills because it introduces you to so many people that you never thought you’d meet and so many leaders who honestly make a true impact in your life.”
As someone whose sister participated in pageants as she was growing up, Lyda said she’d long held interest in competing in them herself. But it wasn’t until she learned that Laurens County hosted the state pageant for 4-H that she found her opportunity.
And at the Statehouse, Lyda stood on the front steps adorned in a tiara and sash identifying her as Miss Teen 4-H.
“This was my second year doing it, and I’m so honored to be able to wear this crown wherever I go in Laurens County,” she said. “As Miss Teen 4-H, I get to make young children, older people and everybody in between aware of the capabilities of 4-H. We aren’t just people who plant plants, we’re really people who want to grow future leaders and want to be able to make people’s lives better and help them grow.”
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