Children involved in a new Cass County 4-H program are getting opportunities to touch and taste the earth this summer.
University of Missouri Extension Youth Educator Brittany Nieder says the club, 4-H Life, is giving at-risk youth in the community the opportunity to work on a meaningful project – a community garden – and learn a life lesson from it.
“They will take care of all these plants until they’re mature and give us fruit,” Neider said. “From that point, the kiddos get the opportunity to take that produce to the county fair.”
The 4-H Life club, currently a 4-H pilot program solely in Cass County, is designed so that the youth participants, ranging in ages from 7 to 16 years old, can work alongside their parents with their projects.
The group meets twice a month in Harrisonville.
At the start of its inaugural season, Neider received grant money from the Darden Foundation to purchase the needed supplies – including pots, soil and fertilizers – to allow participants in the 4-H club to create a potted garden, located at the MU Extension Office.
An array of fruit and vegetables were planted within the pots in the spring. Over the summer months, the youth are responsible for maintaining their produce’s health and maturity.
“It is their responsibility to keep track of them,” Neider said.
Area Master Gardeners and local drug court participants who tend to their own garden at the MU Extension Office, also lend a hand on occasion with the youth’s gardening efforts when needed.
Neider said the garden teaches youth the sense of teamwork. The children also learn the attributes of self-esteem and confidence-building skills.
“It’s a life experience – taking what you’ve done and being proud of it,” Neider said.
Traditional 4-H Club participants throughout the region also work on horticulture and gardening projects as part of their curriculum, but they typically do their work at home.
“We’re doing the same concept, but we just have the (resources) here to do it on-site,” Neider said. “Next year, we will work on giving these kids more individualized projects if they want them.”
Once their produce is ripe and ready to pick, the youth in Neider’s program will have the opportunity to show off their work at the Cass County Fair in mid-July.
Neider says it’s yet another life skill that can be developed.
“Being able to take it to somebody and tell them how you did it, how you grew it, how you took care of it – it’s the job interview process in its simplest level,” she said.
The reward for the hard work comes in not only the form of a sense of satisfaction, but also a ribbon at the end of the day, and possibly, an opportunity to go to the state fair.
“A lot of these kids haven’t had those kinds of opportunities,” Neider said. “They’ve put that responsibility and effort in, and they’re getting something out of it.”
With so many variables in the art of gardening, Neider is also aware of the challenges when something, such as produce, doesn’t fully reach its potential.
“If they don’t get what they thought, that’s another life lesson,” she said. “Sometimes things don’t turn out like they should.”
Over the summer, the youth and their parents will be doing other agriculture-activities, including a grocery store tour led by the MU Extension's Nutrition and Health Specialist Susan Mills-Gray.