Endings and beginnings

For advocates of youth activities, youth services and youth leadership development in Multnomah County, an era ended this past Monday night. With this last Awards and Recognition Night for 4-H youth, the 4-H and Extension programs in Multnomah County officially closed for good. The factors that killed 4-H in Multnomah County did not involve a lack of participation – approximately 15,000 youths per year were served by 4-H and Extension through various programs including traditional project clubs, school-centered groups, Wildlife Stewards and other programs. Rather, the factors involved a deliberate choice by allegedly liberal, child-friendly, Democratic Multnomah County leaders to not fund 4-H and Extension.

Why did these politicians make this choice? Ask any proponent of the programs and you’ll get any number of speculations about motives, including a concern that Extension and 4-H were perceived as predominantly rural programs irrelevant to a mostly urban county. Of course, that perception does not take into account that Multnomah County’s 4-H program had projects and programs compatible with and supportive of urban interests, including science and technology programs and an extensive small-animals division that included urban, pet-friendly critters such as rabbits, guinea pigs, cats and a plethora of small rodents such as rats, hamsters, degus and gerbils. Additionally, Extension had an extensive outreach program that provided food and nutrition services to many low-income residents of Multnomah County, including many people from racial and cultural minorities. Not only that, but Multnomah County and the City of Portland were trailblazers in 4-H and Extension history. Some of the first urban 4-H clubs in the United States were established in Portland in the early part of the 20th century, sponsored through schools and funded with city money.

No matter. It’s gone.

Ultimately, the real reason for this choice, at least as officially given, came down to around $200,000. That was the county contribution to Multnomah County’s 4-H and Extension programs, which triggered approximately $1.2 million in federal and state funds to support the programs. This county money paid for support staff and buildings (including one building owned by the county, for which Extension and 4-H volunteers raised money to renovate for office use). Programming funding, including staffing, came from federal and state dollars. However, all three layers of government – county, state and federal – had to contribute the cash to make the program work. Multnomah County leadership decided the program wasn’t worth the cost.

I admit to a certain degree of personal bias when it comes to this subject. My son was a Multnomah County 4-H-er for four years, and I was a leader for all those years. I was the superintendent of the small-animals division at county fair for the past two years. So yeah, I’m a little biased on the subject. It’s hard not to be when you spend two years listening to frustrated, angry and sad kids who see a program that means so much to them (and for which there is no real replacement) taken away. It’s hard not to empathize with kids who see adult choices as screwing them over.

On the other hand, though, I’m damned proud of all those kids, because they kept on plugging through two years of uncertainty about their future in the 4-H program. They kept on raising their animals, learning their projects, making their art and learning new skills, and doing their best to live the 4-H motto of “To Make the Best Better.” The older kids kept on participating in statewide activities such as Know Your State Government and Summer Conference, kept on doing community service and leadership activities, kept on doing their record books and encouraging the younger members to do the same. The Multnomah County kids continued a fine record of high-quality performances, creative projects and competitive, quality animals at both county fair and state fair. The Teen Leadership Club that put on the annual Awards and Recognition Night, recognizing all the youth who have worked hard all year, put as much effort and worry into the process, as it has done for many past years.

Monday night was the last night these kids will be together as a county. From now on, many of them continue their work and projects in neighboring counties such as Washington, Clackamas, Columbia, Hood River and Marion. It was a time of tears and sorrow, but a time of new beginnings, as they regroup and move toward their goals.

I’m proud of those kids. It gives me faith in our future. Too bad some folks in high places don’t see the same things.