CLEMSON, S.C. — South Carolina 4-H’ers visit the state’s capital each March to hear from public officials, visit the State House and see legislators in action, but this year some got a surprise welcome from the governor himself — and even a guided tour from his dog.
While tours of the State House are common for 4-H’ers on 4-H Legislative Day, Newberry and Saluda County 4-H have started touring the Governor’s Mansion, as well, according to 4-H Youth Development Agent Alana West of Newberry County Cooperative Extension.
“It is a treasure trove of history that the kids usually find interesting,” West said. “Last year, as we finished up the tour, we ran into Mrs. Peggy McMaster and the family dog, Mac. This year, as we entered the house, the Governor himself was coming down the steps headed to work for the day. Of course, Mac was on his heels. The kids were starstruck and excited for the unexpected ‘good morning’ and ‘hello’ and loved that Mac joined us for the remainder of the tour.”
South Carolina 4-H is the official youth development arm of Clemson Cooperative Extension, and more than 100,000 South Carolina youth have been impacted by its programs. But while 4-H has long been known for — and is deeply proud of — its agriculture roots, these days it takes a much more holistic approach to teach youth life skills through civic engagement, science, healthy living and more.
And few events better exemplify the modern face of 4-H better than 4-H Legislative Day — with its focus on leadership, government and civic responsibility — and another event that was held the previous week at the S.C. State Fairgrounds: the South Carolina 4-H Engineering Challenge.
The S.C. 4-H Engineering Challenge began in 2012 and has grown to approximately 250 youth competitors annually, featuring STEM-based challenges for competition, as well as an interactive STEAM Expo.
“Engineering challenges are fun and engaging ways to allow youth to compete in various STEM disciplines like bridge building, visual arts, robotics, rocketry and more,” S.C. 4-H State Director Ashley Burns said. “South Carolina 4-H Engineering Challenge is offered in the spring annually to youth, ages 9-18, across the state. The goals of this 4-H program are to provide a safe learning environment where youth can try, fail and try again, gain valuable life skills, increase interest, confidence and knowledge in science, and encourage futures in STEM-related careers.”
Speaking at 4-H Legislative Day, South Carolina 4-H Teen Council President Aliza Allison said it would be impossible to overstate the importance of 4-H to youth across South Carolina.
“It’s definitely changed my life,” Allison said. “It’s built me into the person I am today. So many of my accomplishments and the experiences I’ve had are thanks to 4-H, and it’s important to me that we keep these opportunities going for the next generation of leaders. I want to make sure that those who come after me will get to do everything I did — and so much more — and to me the best way to do that is to make sure that my legislators know how the program means to me, how much better I’ve become as a citizen and leader thanks to the program, so that they’ll continue to support it well into the future.”
The Abbeville County 4-H Teen Council, for example, met with State Rep. Craig Gagnon, who spoke to the young people about his role as a legislator and the budget process. After the meeting, Gagnon led the group down the elevators to an underground parking garage and eventually through an underground tour ending inside the middle of the State House.
“Representative Gagnon was incredibly generous to our teens, taking the time sharing with the youth, but also introduced the group from the Gallery inside the Chamber in front of all the Representatives,” said Jenny Mountford, 4-H Youth Development agent, Abbeville County. “This was the first time visiting the State House for almost half of our teen council, and to understand the role legislators play in our state government is a part of the citizenship our teens are learning.”
Freddricka Pressley, 4-H Youth Development agent, said Gov. McMaster also greeted the Junior Leadership Florence County 4-H Program Class individually with a warm handshake, introduced himself briefly and was eager to hear from the students.
“Governor McMaster was pleased to hear that the group represented all the public and private high schools and homeschool associations across Florence County,” Pressley said. “He strongly encouraged the students to ask as many questions as they could because they should always seize the opportunity to ask questions. He took the opportunity to take a group photo and a few individual photos. This was the highlight of the students’ visit to the State House.”
State 4-H Teen Council Vice President Macie Thomas said 4-H Legislative Day was not only a chance to meet legislators and learn how government functions, but also a chance to show those legislators the power 4-H had to impact young people.
“I’ve definitely developed more confidence, public speaking skills and leadership skills through all the many competitions and program areas 4-H has to offer,” Thomas said.
And many more skills beyond that were on display for the young people who competed in the 4-H Engineering Challenge held in the Ellison Building at S.C. State Fairgrounds on March 1.
Burns said she was overwhelmed by the turnout at this year’s event, which included 369 people registered in challenges, at least 249 unique participants in attendance, 10 exhibitors and about 15 additional teen leaders and volunteers assisting.
Additionally, Burns gave specific recognition to Chester County 4-H Agent Abigail Phillips for the dedication and immense effort she gave to the program, while serving as agent chair, but also noted that credit was due to a slew of additional 4-H Youth Development team members and other Extension program teamers, as well.
“They are all amazing colleagues that provided tremendous support to us from helping with challenges to teaching the next generation of industry leaders what careers they can have connected with STEM,” Burns said. “I’ve received numerous calls and emails and seen posts on social media about how wonderful of a time people had at the 4-H Engineering Challenge. Every year, the skills these young people demonstrate impresses me. Several of them had never been outside their immediate communities before, much less to Columbia to see the fairgrounds or adjacent Williams-Brice Stadium. Everyone who helped make this possible truly made an impact.”