It takes a team
By KAREN SCHWALLER
SAC CITY-Steph Erpelding knows a good 4-H program doesn’t just happen-it’s created.
She also knows it’s not just about what she does as Iowa State University’s 4-H youth coordinator in Sac County. She said it’s her leader team who works hard to bring the 4-H experience to the members.
“It used to be that our clubs had one or two leaders. Now they have teams of leaders,” she said. “If someone can’t be at a meeting or can’t help with something their club is doing, there are other leaders who can step in because they know what’s going on.
“We run well as a 4-H program by doing it that way, and I couldn’t get my job done without the work of our leaders.”
Erpelding, in her seventh year at her post, grew up as a 4-H’er in Ida County as a member of the Galva Go-Getters 4-H Club and later as a member of the Holstein-based Grigg’s Lassies 4-H Club.
It was something she said she always enjoyed, but she never saw herself leading a county 4-H program.
She sought out an elementary education degree from Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, graduating in 2004. She substitute taught for awhile and worked another job. When the position of Clover Kids coordinator became available in 2005, she took it. When the CYC position opened a year later, she was first in line to apply.
Today, she leads nine clubs with 172 members with the help of 32 adult leaders.
“I love all aspects of my job,” she said. “The kids are like my own kids-I treat them as my own.
“And the great leaders here in Sac County have handed this great program down to me. Several of the leaders have been here for many, many years. I’m just carrying on the great work they started.”
Erpelding said her Clover Kids program features children in kindergarten through second grade. There were 25 members who met four times a year on Saturday afternoons when she first started. When she took over the CYC position, she moved that program to once a month meetings after school. Today, the program numbers 72 members.
“It’s great for them,” Erpelding said, “because they learn the 4-H pledge, what the four ‘H’s (stand for), the motto, and they do crafts, make snacks and play games. We always tie the craft and snack back into 4-H somehow.”
Erpelding said 70 percent of last year’s Clover Kids joined the 4-H program.
“When you see that kind of retention, it’s so rewarding,” she said.
Third graders in Sac County are eligible to join 4-H because they’re too old to be part of the Clover Kids program and not old enough to show livestock, but they can do everything else in the 4-H program until they are in fourth grade, when they are eligible to enter any exhibit.
Erpelding said she and her leader team keep 4-H members active by keeping them engaged. They do an annual lock-in – which she said always has 80 or more attending. They do leadership camps for middle school and high school students, and they take members to the 4-H camp in Madrid to learn about team building, which she said is important for the club members.
“We have kids coming to 4-H from eight different school districts,” she said of the challenges she and her leaders face in scheduling. “The schools are not all in Sac County, but the kids do come here from all of those districts, and it’s nice to see our county council, middle school and high school students getting and working together and getting along.”
Erpelding and her leaders encourage their older members to be part of something bigger than their monthly meetings. They encourage members to seek out the National 4-H Congress, a week-long trip to Atlanta, Ga., and the National 4-H Conference, a weeklong trip to Washington, D.C.
Since 1999, Sac County 4-H has missed only five years of sending members to Washington, and, since 1999, they have missed just three years of sending members to Georgia.
They encourage their high school 4-H members to be part of the state 4-H council and apply for state awards. Sac County 4-H members have received state awards over the years, and this year, Sac County 4-H members took four of 40 available seats on the state 4-H council.
“4-H isn’t just going to monthly meetings anymore,” Erpelding said. “It’s about becoming an adult through mastery of projects and taking them above and beyond through leadership and citizenship.”
When members leave the 4-H program following high school graduation, she said the skills the members learn while they were in the program are skills they will use for life.
“The things they’ve learned after nine years in 4-H don’t stop when they graduate,” she said. “They use them all through college and later on in life. We always tell the kids not to just let someone talk about state recognition awards, but to seek them out.
“That’s something they will use all throughout their lives. Employers also look for (potential employees) who have been in 4-H because they bring a lot of good skills to the job.”
With so many leaders to keep informed and so many members to keep busy, Erpelding relies heavily on social media, email and her cell phone for communication. She gets to as many club meetings as possible, she said, so club members know she cares about what’s going on.
Still, she said, she can’t rest on her laurels and assume things will click along. She said she needs to be changing with the times and meeting the challenges of families.
“Nothing is cookie cutter anymore,” she said, when working with families and youths. “You have to change the way you think in order to be successful. State 4-H is always putting out something new for us to do. We have to think outside the box.”
Erpelding said she would like to see 200 youths involved in Sac County 4-H eventually, which she said they used to have “back in the day.”
She would also like to see gaps filled in within Sac County 4-H, starting new clubs in areas where there aren’t any.
Her family includes husband Ken Erpelding who farms with his father near Lake View, and who was also a Sac County 4-H’er who showed sheep.
Their children are Kaydon, 8; Kinzie, 5; and Kole, 5 months.
“They’re all going to be in 4-H,” Erpelding said as she laughed. “They’re not going to have a choice.”
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