Conquer the Unthinkable

Kea Norrell BoydKea Norrell Boyd is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts in 4-H and Future Farmers of America.


Growing up in Detroit, I didn’t become aware of 4-H until attending Michigan State University.  I was accustomed to visiting the 4-H Children’s Garden on campus and seeing the green clover but still did not understand the concepts and rich history of 4-H.  My experiences taught me that 4-H meant “agriculture,” but I would soon be educated and exposed to the progression of 4-H delivery methods.   

Since its inception more than 100 years ago, 4-H has grown to become the nation’s largest youth development organization. 4-H provides out-of-school experiences, in-school enrichment, clubs and camp opportunities for youth to develop leadership skills and explore ways to give back to their communities. 4-H emphasizes the practical application of knowledge or “learning by doing” to develop skills and acquire a sense of responsibility, initiative and self-worth. Adult volunteers play a significant role in 4-H youth development programs and work closely with Extension employees who support the long-term partnerships between land grant universities and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Many people (me included) are familiar with the agricultural aspects of 4-H and are surprised to hear how 4-H programming has evolved over the years to be relevant in rural and urban settings. 

In 2005, with increasingly challenging conditions in Detroit, Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H answered the call of duty and formed the Wayne County 4-H Mentoring Program. I was the first staff member hired to coordinate a 4-H mentoring program that works to decrease delinquency and truancy and increase academics of youth ages 10 to 17.  Since 2006, the mentoring program has grown significantly and currently has six staff members and services more than 300 youth. 

In expanding the Wayne County 4-H Mentoring Program I realized that it is great to offer caring adult mentors to at-risk youth, but that only addresses one of many challenges. I began to notice that the young people in the mentoring program also needed tutoring, Individual Education Plans, individual/family counseling, anger management, housing referrals, food, clothing and assistance with utilities. I proposed to offer a 4-H mentoring program that went above and beyond the mentoring relationship but also focused on the whole family and the community.  The Wayne County 4-H Mentoring Program now conducts home visits in which trained staff members assist participating families in identifying community resources to empower the whole unit (child, family, neighborhood and community). 

To truly give young people growing up in high-risk environments a chance to succeed, we must find ways to support, intervene and redirect youth who have unenviable circumstances. I have worked extremely hard so that urban Detroit youth (within and outside of the Wayne County 4-H Mentoring Program) have comparable experiences to their suburban counterparts. Wayne County 4-H Mentoring Program youth participate in service learning projects, precollege experiences such as Exploration Days, which takes place on the campus of Michigan State University and 4-H Mentoring Weekend at the Kettunen Center (a full-service retreat facility on a lake in mid-Michigan). I believe that exposure and education are the keys to expanding the mindsets of underserved youth. If you are unfamiliar with various accomplishments (such as obtaining a college degree or securing a successful career) or don’t see people who look like you that have attained them, it is more difficult to envision yourself in that role. The Wayne County 4-H Mentoring Program provides youth with the opportunity to “learn by doing” so that they not only envision themselves in successful roles but also master skills, which encourage the ability to conquer the unthinkable. 

In June of this year, The Wayne County 4-H Mentoring Program celebrated eight graduating high school seniors. The majority of them entered the mentoring program when they were in middle school. Out of the eight seniors, three received full scholarships to Big Ten Universities, two were accepted to other four-year universities and the remaining three are attending community college or working. It was a very proud moment to present certificates to young people I have watched learn and grow and have assisted in accomplishing goals that some felt were unobtainable. I sometimes sit and wonder what their lives would have been like if they hadn’t had supportive adult mentors, skill development opportunities and life changing experiences. But then I snap out of it and remember that they did have the Wayne County 4-H Mentoring Program as a comprehensive support system and are excelling because of it.   

Please consider contacting a local 4-H club or mentoring program if you would like to give back to your community or touch the life of a young person. You may not always see immediate results, but the long-term effects are tremendous. Mentoring is like planting seeds. You may spend time and effort with young people now but the reward may come later with the harvest. Adults often forget what they did over the years to support a young person, but the young person never forgets those who took a special interest in them. Remember to thank individuals who influenced your life. It makes a huge impact to hear that “you made a difference in my life and I appreciate you.”

Kea Norrell Boyd is an educator for the Wayne County 4-H Mentoring Program, a part of the Children & Youth Institute at Michigan State University Extension.

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