Throughout 2022, the Massachusetts 4-H program, Community Service Learning Initiative introduced youth to ways they can make an impact on a current issue, beginning with youth mental health and followed by food insecurity. From May to August, 4-Hers explored the theme of climate change, with the goal for youth to learn and become motivated to make changes locally. The participants listened to the experts, evaluated resources, and implemented improvements in their own backyards. “The youth are taking it more seriously than a lot of adults, “said Angelica Diaz-Heyman, a 4-H Educator.
At the kickoff Zoom meeting to the Climate Change Community Service initiative, Dr. Justin Gay, an ecologist and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, gave 4-Hers a talk entitled “Global Climate Change: The Science and Emerging Solutions.” Dr. Gay opened the talk with a short NASA video of the progression of Earth’s surface temperatures over the last 150 years through a presentation of satellite data. “This is just one of the multiple lines of evidence that unequivocally supports the fact that humans have drastically altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, and this has led to global climate change,” says Dr. Gay.
Shealyn Malone, a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin, highlighted one of the many ways climate change impacts global ecosystems by presenting a case study about forests. Healthy and functioning forests remove large quantities of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis and store it in their biomass. However, high temperatures, more frequent drought, and increased pressure from herbivores, like bark beetles, may hinder the ability of trees to store carbon and contribute to climate change. The two scientists also shared with 4-Hers resources from the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the United Nations, and Youth Climate Action Now (YCAN) on how to reduce their own carbon footprints.
4-H youth have started to take action in a variety of ways. Madelyn, 16, a member of the Horse Feathers 4-H Club in Norfolk, initiated a project that addressed climate change as well as youth mental health. She collected old sneakers to keep them out of landfills and sent them to GotSneakers, a sneaker recycling company. She then donated the proceeds to an organization that helps people who suffer from eating disorders. Madelyn has also made small changes in her daily life to help climate change. She turns the lights off before exiting a room and tries to walk or take public transportation instead of driving. “Climate change is important…I do things to make a difference,” she explained.
The Good Shepherd Sheep 4-H Club in Littleton has also taken steps to reduce its carbon footprint. In addition to caring for sheep they own, club members raise chickens and grow vegetables, according to Lisa Besse, the club’s leader. During the pandemic years of 2020-21, the youth donated vegetables — 85 pounds in 2021 —and eggs to low-income residents in their town, enabling those residents to access local, healthy food. Good Shepherd members have also brought sheep fertilizer to be used at Littleton Community Farm. Most notably, club members have submitted a proposal to a local corporation to have the sheep “mow” around and below its solar fields, to avoid sending harmful gasoline mower emissions into the air. These sustainability practices center around helping others. “The 4-Hers learn to help other people, that the world is bigger than themselves,” said Lisa.
This past summer, 4-H participated in the Barnstable County Fair and engaged youth in activities that illustrated the importance of water, such as using a coffee filter with markers to show how water travels. 4-H invited AmeriCorps to run fair activities about the water resources on Cape Cod.
4-H Educators also have encouraged more gardening and composting in 4-H clubs, with the goal of these activities “informing the youths’ projects over the course of the year,” said Angelica. Small changes add up!