Lynette Ely — who has been with the organization for 52 years — remembers experiencing one of the most formative experiences of her life through the 4-H International Exchange Program.
The Jenner Township chapter member was just 21 when she went to Ecuador through the program. Her brother John Naugle went to Brazil around the same time. "It changed our perspectives tremendously about other cultures and other ways of life," she said. "It's something I've always carried with me."
She found herself living in a small town in the Andes at approximately 8,000 feet above sea level. "It was June and it was so cold," she said. "I thought it was going to be warm and like summer."
The weather wasn't really the most important thing she took away from the five-month trip. Seeing and meeting people living in a different environment and becoming friends with her host family was the real gift, she said.
When she came back, she was a 4-Her for life. "I had such a debt to pay, in my mind," she said. "I wanted to see other kids get the opportunity to have those experiences."
So she has remained active in the Jenner Township chapter, helping to guide new generations. Her husband Richard Ely has been there also, helping with the county's equine program. Compared to his wife he's a slacker — with only 51 years of volunteering under his belt. He said that he was never a youth member, but became involved through his love of horses
He helps train members on how to show them, ride them and care for them. "Hopefully it becomes a life-long entertainment for them," he said.
While the animal programs will always be a staple part of 4-H programming, the organization has grown and changed over the decades, said Joanne Stoltzfus, who is in charge of 4-H youth development at theSomerset County
"We're maintaining what we've done and keep adding new things," Stoltzfus said. "Everybody thinks that you have to be farm-oriented and showing animals. But our core mission is to teach healthy living, citizenship and science."
Community service projects, leadership programs and educational programs are just as much a part of 4-H as showing market animals at a county fair, she said.
Carol Pyle, the extension program's assistant, said new initiatives like the robotics education program have been popular. "They're stepping up and making a push in science," Pyle said. "And they're identifying leaders that can step up in the field."
Every one of the 20 chapters in the county also performs at least one community service project per year, Stoltzfus said. Many of them conduct several service projects.
Members visit assisted living facilities, hospitals and youth homes, conduct food drives, maintain local landmarks and perform other positive acts, Stoltzfus said. "That's one area where I think some people don't really see what we do," she said.
Membership rates in the county have remained steady despite increasing competition for the time of area youth, Stoltzfus said.
In 2011, there were 546 traditional members in the district and another 1,185 were served through 4-H programs held in area schools or other community centers, Stoltzfus said.
Those numbers hold up well to records from 2000. Back then, the district had 639 traditional members and served 914 through other programs.
"You can see that while we may not have as many traditional members, we're serving just as many through these other programs," Stoltzfus said. "I think that shows that as the times change, we're changing to continue reaching our youth."
And while the past is full of rich memories, the present is making new and rich ones for current members. Echo Kincaid, 17, of Rockwood, is one of the next generation members.
The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School senior's 4-H resume includes being a national congress member, vice president of operations for the state council, a county council member, extension board member and winning the junior achievement award in 2009.
She started by showing animals and quickly found that 4-H offered far more than she thought was possible. "For me, leadership has been one of the biggest things I've taken from 4-H," Kincaid said. "It has given me so many amazing opportunities."
Kincaid will actually push her dream of attending the Pennsylvania State University
back for a year so that she can stay active locally until she is 18 and member eligibility ends.
"I just feel like there is so much I want to do before it's over," she said. "These are students working to a better life for themselves and make America a better place for our generation and the next generation."
Instead of Penn State in the fall, she will be attending Penn Highlands Community College with the goal of transferring once her membership ends.
Not being a member anymore will just mean that she becomes a volunteer. "I plan to stick with 4-H to the end," she said.