MARQUETTE - The idea of participating in a 4-H club might make you think of kids learning how to take care of farm animals. But for local club members, the 4-H experience is much more than that.
Gentian Waller, 17, of Marquette was 9 years old in 2003 when her love of horses drew her to join a 4-H club organized by her riding instructor.
"I was horse crazy," she said. "I wanted to learn more."
Similar to the Quiz Bowl trivia competition played in area high schools, Horse Bowl is a 4-H trivia competition centering on horse care. Here are junior and senior members of the Posse 4-H Club’s Horse Bowl team are shown after winning their respective competitions last year at Michigan State University. Gentian Waller is pictured in the second row, second from the right. (Gentain Waller photo)
Since that first club - the U.P. Riders 4-H Club - she has also joined a second local club, called The Posse, and tailored her experience to include not just horse car, but also leadership and performing arts, making 4-H a big part of her experience growing up.
"It's giving youth leadership opportunities, partly promoting agriculture and crafts, but it's also about creating social connections in a wide range of ages," Waller said. "I believe it's also making kids aware of environmental issues and social issues."
Clubs typically meet once a month for regular meetings, often holding additional meetings to carry out volunteer or special projects, Waller said.
One regular activity Waller participates in is her club's competitive Horse Bowl trivia team. Similar to the format of High School Bowl, teams are asked questions regarding horse care and showing, with points going to whichever team can give the correct answer after buzzing in. The Posse's junior and senior Horse Bowl teams both attended state and national competitions last year.
"It's being in a team, but also studying something you're really passionate about," Waller said of why she enjoys the Horse Bowl competitions.
Throughout the year, clubs also get to take part in larger activities, such as Exploration Days where many local 4-H members spent the past week on the campus of Michigan State University.
"Kids from around Michigan stay on campus and attend classes," Waller said. "You can select anything. There's ice skating, baking, archery, taking a language. They really open up the campus to whatever the kids want to take."
During the weeklong event, the delegates are responsible for finding their way to their classes and managing their own schedules.
As part of her own Exploration Days schedule, Waller is also participating in the 4-H state awards program. For the state award program, participants are required to select an area of interest - performing arts in Waller's case - creating a portfolio of all their experience in that area. They then go through an interview process which awards the top participants with recognition and cash awards.
State awards participants also work on a large-scale volunteer project together during their time on campus.
"The number of kids we have allows us to create a mass quantity of items," Waller said, like care packages or other items for organizations in need of extra help.
This year was Waller's fourth year participating in the state awards program.
For Waller, focusing her 4-H interests on performing arts has also given her a big boost in the area of leadership, from first leading campfire songs at 4-H summer camp to now playing in front of large crowds as part of the folk duo Gold Mine Girls, which she formed with her sister RiLee, 15. The duo was selected two years in a row to perform at the Exploration Days talent night, meaning performing in front of an audience of more than 2,500 people.
Today she plays guitar, piano and lap dulcimer, as well as lending her vocal talents to the group, which was also selected to perform the National Association of County Agricultural Agents annual meeting, held in Kansas last summer.
Although she has been performing for many years, Waller said her 4-H participation has helped improve her own presence.
"It has very much helped," she said. "What I've done with 4-H has really helped me to present myself and engage with audiences better."
But more than the performing arts focus, participating in 4-H has given Waller the chance to practice leadership skills through volunteer projects and being exposed to a wider support network.
In 2008, the club put together a chili dinner fundraiser to benefit three of their members who had all lost their fathers due to an accident and illness, helping the three girls put aside money for their college funds.
"I'd say the connection is my favorite thing," she said. "In school, you're always with your age group. In 4-H, you get to have fun with all different ages. It feels like a big family."
Although the 4-H program allows participants to focus in some areas, Waller said the point of the program is to experience many things.
It gives them a well-rounded experience. You're introduced to a lot of positive influences, especially positive adults," she said.
Now 17, Waller may soon become one of those adults herself. Youth are able to participate in 4-H until the age of 19, which she plans on doing. Home schooled for her grade school years, Waller graduated from high school a year early and just recently completed her freshman year at Northern Michigan University.
"I would really like to stay involved," she said.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.