4-H breaks new ground. Local clubs now tackle tough social problems like drug abuse, illiteracy

IN the linoleum-tiled basement of their local library, a dozen young members of the Ar-Razzaq 4-H Club are making posters to celebrate Love Your Library Month. In a few minutes, these 4-Hers will go out and do ``fieldwork,'' passing out fliers to promote adult literacy classes in their inner-city neighborhood.

Their club is a program of the United States Department of Agriculture, but many of these youngsters have never set foot on a farm. Their projects are based firmly in their urban neighborhood. And their 4-H club is increasingly typical.

As the nation's farmland shrinks, and social problems bear down on both rural and urban youth, 4-H is moving into the cities.

For several years, in addition to the familiar projects of livestock care and home economics, 4-H booklets have offered projects such as community development, computer science, bicycle safety, and crime prevention. Now some 4-H clubs are tackling tough social problems including illiteracy, drug abuse, and teen suicide.

This is not a fundamental change in purpose, 4-H leaders stress. The goal of the program, as established by Congress in 1914, is simply to help young people develop life skills.

Modeled on agricultural clubs popular around the turn of the century, 4-H was set up as part of the Cooperative Extension Service. It initially focused on farm activities. But now its leaders say that the four H's of the program - head, hands, heart, and health - can apply as well to drug abuse prevention and to work with a local library as to farming and food preparation.

``With the urbanization of America, we've had the urbanization of 4-H,'' says Eleanor Wilson, national 4-H program leader. ``The projects may look a little different, but the basics are still there.''

Today, 85 percent of the 4.5 million 4-H members live off farms, and farm youth face many of the same needs and concerns as other youth nationwide.

At a statewide 4-H congress in Bozeman, Mont., in June, 457 4-H members, aged 14 to 18, identified teen suicide, teen-age pregnancy, the drinking age, drunken driving, AIDS, peer pressure, the family farm, Montana's economy, and the global economy as issues that concerned them.

``Now we're meeting, trying to develop programs to respond to those issues if we can,'' says Montana 4-H youth specialist Harold Strobel.

In West Virginia, 4-H'ers in clubs and camps are doing experiments that show the dangers of tobacco and alcohol use - analyzing advertising and role-playing ways to refuse dangerous substances.

In four pilot counties, 4-H projects have been brought into school classrooms to see if the atmosphere of group membership and hands-on work can help prevent school dropouts. Next year, West Virginia 4-H leaders are planning to offer a teen-age sexuality program for youth and their parents.

``We've looked at what our problems are, and we feel our extension service needs to be addressing these problems,'' explains Dr. Ruthellen Phillips, extension 4-H specialist.

She notes that West Virginia has the highest rate of tobacco consumption per capita and among the highest rates of teen pregnancy and alcohol use by children of any state in the nation. ``We're kind of facing reality,'' she says.

One California county has a 4-H latchkey program for youngsters, and in White Pine County, Nev., 60 kids, aged 9 to 12, are involved in a child abuse prevention and child safety project called Staying Alive.

In Kentucky, 4,500 members are involved in a self-esteem-building project intended to help prevent suicide and lower stress.

In Florida, 35,000 4-H'ers are in seat-belt programs, and nationwide about 3 million are learning bicycle safety.

4-H extension agents, aided by researchers at the land-grant universities in each state, are preparing booklets and audiovisuals for schools and holding parenting classes for adults.

These programs are all designed to prevent major youth problems, not to treat ongoing ones.

``I don't know that we have as many programs in place as I hope we'll have,'' says national program leader John Irby, who specializes in youth issues. ``But I don't think you have to have a program on alcohol abuse or substance abuse to be effective in the arena.''

Dr. Irby points to research showing that many youth problems are rooted in low self-esteem, and that self-esteem can be raised through 4-H's traditional emphasis on manual skills and teaching relationships.

Aquilla Hanifa, the energetic volunteer leader of Ar-Razzaq 4-H, agrees with this. ``Hands-on does things for everybody, I believe,'' she says, watching club members, including her two daughters, color a banner for the library in bright red, green, and yellow.

``When a child sees something that he has created, it's like `This isme!' It builds self-esteem, self-worth.''

Ms. Hanifa is one of 600,000 volunteers throughout the country who lead 4-H clubs. She started the 25-member Ar-Razzaq club with two other mothers a year ago. ``I decided one day that I wanted to do something for my community. And the next day I got started,'' she recalls.

She chose to work through 4-H, she says, because ``it has all the resources. It's like a library.''

``I think it's exciting. I've never been to camp before,'' says Hanifa's daughter Naeemah, 10, who hopes to learn to swim at a 4-H camp that's coming up.

``It's interesting. You learn new things. A lot of people help you, and it's fun,'' concludes her friend Najla McClain.

Nationwide, many of the older 4-H programs are still the most popular - in part because they have been frequently updated by the Extension Service.

Farm projects are now practiced by young people who don't live on farms. Many families seem to believe there is something important about farm skills and experience that is lost to urban society.

Ten-year-old Emily Griggs of Orange Grove, N.C., has shown dairy calves with her 4-H club for the last five years. Emily doesn't live on a farm. Neither do half the others in her club. They work with local farmers, many of whom had or still have youngsters in 4-H themselves.

``It's fun. I like showing them in the show. I like working with animals,'' Emily says, even though she plans to be a teacher, not a farmer, when she is grown.

``I think it's important that our children are able to see both rural and urban,'' says her mother, Pat, who was raised in a rural area herself. ``Not many of us, even though we might like to, can be part of a dairy farm.''

In more developed areas it is sometimes not possible for young people to share in a farm experience. Parkwood 4-H, a club in Durham County, N.C., looked in vain for a farm where club members could keep lambs. Once their housing development was surrounded by farms, but now ``we just could not find a facility,'' says county extension agent Linda Washburn.

For urban and suburban kids, 4-H has adapted some farm projects so they can fit in a backyard or even an apartment building. Poultry projects once involved raising chicks, but now in North Carolina poultry is an embryology project, in which kids incubate fertilized eggs until they hatch.

``It just is not practical for anyone in the city to raise 100 baby chicks, but this does teach them life sciences,'' says extension 4-H leader Dalton Proctor.

The point, he and other leaders note, is simply to teach young people what they need to know.

``As the needs of young people change, so do 4-H programs,'' says Ms. Wilson.

It can take a good set of skills to cope with growing up in 1987. 4-H is putting programs where it counts.

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