Answering the impossible question

By Cassaundra Dietrich - OSU Extension

A.J Zanyk Photography 2016

A.J Zanyk Photography 2016

As the “point person” for local 4-H programming, I am asked one question more than any other: “What is 4-H?” Answering that question in a concise, yet adequate response is nearly impossible. Do I respond with the very succinct definition from the National 4-H Council, which states “4-H is the largest youth development program in the U.S., empowering nearly six million young people across the U.S. with the skills to lead for a lifetime.”? Or do I respond with the more local details of the program, explaining that we enroll nearly 1,000 youth and 100 adult volunteers? If I’m lucky, I sometimes get enough time to spout off that youth in 4-H take hands-on projects in areas like health, science, agriculture and the arts and are encouraged to take on proactive leadership roles such as 4-H Camp Counselor and Junior Fair Board. I have tri-fold display boards covered in pictures and brochures full of bullet points, but even they seem to miss the mark.

No matter how many times I respond to the question, I never feel like I can sufficiently verbalize what 4-H is. The truth of the matter is I can’t. After nearly three years in my position, I have come to terms with a sobering reality: I, the local 4-H educator, cannot articulate what my own program is.

That’s because the answer to what 4-H is doesn’t fit in a text box. It can’t be captured in a couple of photos. The explanation doesn’t lie in a savvy definition or a chronicle of statistics. There is no amount of literature or dialogue that can comprehensively express what 4-H is. Because 4-H is so much more.

4-H is the energy when I walk into a classroom of third graders excited to learn about coding Spherobots. It’s the smile on the face of a teen who has taken the same livestock project for eight years and finally (finally!) won their class. 4-H is the rhythm of 136 youth singing their prayers before a meal at 4-H Camp and the cadence of laughter that filters through the midnight air after lights out. It’s the tears in the eyes of youth, from the first-year 4-H’er nervous about judging to the last-year 4-H’er strolling empty barns the final night of fair.

4-H is the struggle of the adult volunteer who is asked for the tenth time when those forms are due. It’s the heartache when the animal an exhibitor has practiced with time and time again doesn’t perform when it actually counts. 4-H is the fascination in the eyes of a child who is seeing something for the first time. It’s the melody of a pledge kids know by heart and the curl of a project book being opened. 4-H is a catalyst for memories and a platform for independence.

4-H is passion, achievement, disappointment and perseverance. It’s a commitment to becoming a better version of one’s self. It’s a promise to share knowledge, broaden perspectives and act as a change agent. 4-H is all that. And more. Unfortunately (or fortunately, really), there is no amount of ink or paper or words in the dictionary to answer the question, “What is 4-H?” That’s because 4-H is a culture. A feeling. A moment in time. If you have been touched by 4-H, you truly understand.

Every year, we start the same routine on Oct. 1: re-enrollment, new enrollments, officer elections, advisor workshops, quality assurance training, camp counselor and Junior Fair Board meetings… the list goes on. We roll through winter and into spring with the same objectives in mind year after year: recruit new members, guide volunteers, increase funding, engage with the community. At times, these tasks seem mundane. But, in reality, they are the framework for what will become our 4-H program over the next 12 months. Today is the first of 365 days of activities that will become the very thing I seek.

“What is 4-H?”

“Come along. I’ll show you,” is the best I’ve got.

A.J Zanyk Photography 2016 Zanyk Photography 2016

By Cassaundra Dietrich

OSU Extension

The writer can be reached at the OSU Extension office (937-498-7239) or by email at

The writer can be reached at the OSU Extension office (937-498-7239) or by email at