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Photo of a boy painting

Jimmy, a 4-H member in St. Cloud, paints a brick that is part of a design his club created for a public park used by senior citizens.

Discovering by doing

Today's youth are tomorrow's leaders. But how do we get there from here? With nearly half of Minnesota's 10- to 12-year-olds spending their after-school hours unstructured and unsupervised, parents and community leaders statewide are asking that question.

University of Minnesota Extension's 4-H Youth Development Program has some answers. When young people have a chance to get involved with something they like and "learn by doing," they make better decisions, give back to their communities and grow up to be solid, contributing citizens. Case in point: 13-year-old Mohamed and his friends, all residents of St. Cloud's La Cruz Community Housing complex. Occasional youth-development participants, the boys became "regulars" when they were asked to develop a program that excited them. Now they are deep into planning their own hip-hop dance group.

Every Thursday at 3:30 p.m., the La Cruz Community Center fills with laughing kids eager to work on computers, visit with friends, and partake in the week's 4-H project. The weekly 4-H after-school program serves boys and girls from the community-housing complex, primarily immigrants from Somalia, Togo, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Guatemala. Casey Torgerson, an Americorps Promise fellow for 4-H afterschool programs, is guiding Mohamed and his friends as they create their hip-hop dance group.

"I'm glad that my friends and I get to choose what we do in 4-H," says Mohamed. "Our dance group will be really fun!"

The project illustrates how 4-H's unique "learn by doing" model can influence adolescent behavior and development. (Adult volunteers guide the youth through a discovery process by prompting them to question, analyze and reflect.)

Urban youth are leading

Eurell and his twin sister, Arielle, have been active in 4-H since they were 12 , when a friend told them about the group at St. Paul's Rivertown Commons. Since then the 17-year-olds have been Bay Lake Camp counselors, teen teachers for younger kids in after-school programs and participants in Urban Youth Lead.

"I've learned how to communicate clearly," says Eurell. "And I've learned a lot of patience. There will always be some kind of conflict in your life, and I've learned how to deal with conflict in the right way."

Minnesota 4-H in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area began Urban Youth Lead in 2006. Participants design their own individual and group projects, which may include job shadowing, volunteering, community service work or mentoring. The program has served nearly 600 boys and girls in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area since it began.

Learn more about Extension's Urban Youth Lead.

"In 4-H, youth develop their 'head, heart, hands and health' by designing and participating in their own programs and activities," says Dorothy Freeman, 4-H state program leader. "They're required to reflect on the process, draw conclusions and relate the learning to future experiences in their lives."

4-H is Minnesota's largest youth-serving program, providing access to youth development programs and activities in 87 counties. Last year 113,000 young people throughout the state too part in 4-H.

Community service is another important part of 4-H. This summer, the La Cruz 4-H group has teamed up with the City of St. Cloud Adopt-a-Park program. The 4-H participants will work with residents of a new senior housing development to beautify Schmidt Park with flowers, paths, benches and birdhouses.

"Minnesota's young people are our future," says Stearns County Commissioner Don Otte, who has been a 4-H supporter since 1958, when he was a teenager and showed a hog at the county fair. "And communities need to make an investment in their future."

To learn more about Extension's youth development programs, see Minnesota 4-H Youth Development.