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A north Alabama 4-H club specifically created to help Hispanic youth is seeing the benefits of children who have become excited about learning and involved in their club, school and community.

English language teacher Monica Farris and Colbert County 4-H agent Jewel Campbell created the club to meet a specific need in the lives of Hispanic youth attending Leighton Elementary School. The rewards have expanded to include parents, many of them attending the after-school meetings to learn as well.

The club is a typical 4-H club, with officers, pledges and a variety of educational programs each month that provide a focus on youth development. The only difference is that during the meeting, Farris translates the activities youth conduct in Spanish so parents can understand.

The club is making a difference in the lives of these youth, bridging the gap between school and community involvement. "4-H is changing these children's outlook about school, about fitting in to a new country because they believe they can be president and vice president of the club," says Farris, who teaches at the elementary and high school at Leighton. "It is developing self-esteem in so many ways that would not be happening if it were not for 4-H.

"The Hispanic community respects and values education, and families are anxious for their children to be academically successful," says Farris, but they traditionally are not involved in extracurricular activities.

Alabama's Hispanic population grew nearly 150 percent in the last decade, the nation's second-largest percentage growth in that time, according to an analysis of U.S. Census numbers conducted by Auburn University-Montgomery. Although there was a sharp increase in the Hispanic population, Hispanics are a minority and account for only 3.9 percent of the state's population.

Campbell says she and Farris wanted to start a program to reach these youth. "Monica and I talked one day about how to get more Hispanic students involved in the 4-H program and off we went," says Campbell, who delivers 4-H programming county-wide. "We felt like this special club would give these youth the confidence they need because they are part of something."

Leighton Elementary School Principal Sandy Wade-Thompson says 4-H has been a valuable program for all students in her school, and more so for Hispanic youth. "Getting the parents involved has been a real key because both the student and parent are apprehensive when they don't understand something.

"The parents and children are coming together to the school and, through 4-H, learning English, computer skills and how they can get involved in the school and community."

Wade-Thompson says when parents are involved with their children, it is a win-win situation – for the child, parent, school and community. "4-H has been the tool that has gotten these students and parents involved in the school and community, and that is huge.

"Monica and Jewel have done an outstanding job," says Wade-Thompson, a 4-H alumna herself, so she knows the value of 4-H programs.

"In a regular classroom setting, Hispanic students are traditionally very shy and don't interact much," Farris says. "That can be due to a lot of reasons, but one is that they don't have the background knowledge they need to interact successfully. This club gives them the opportunity to express themselves."

When they come to this club, they are leaders," she says. "They can speak, read, lead and take part in events in a very safe environment, and that is extremely important when you feel out of place when engaging in a new culture."

While some Hispanic students are in other 4-H clubs at Leighton, this specific club gives them the opportunity to learn without fear of intimidation. "They are free to learn in the club because it's okay if they mispronounce a word or get something wrong," Farris adds.

Campbell meets with Farris and the students each month, and this is one of two 4-H clubs at the school.

Students recently took part in several competition programs offered through 4-H, including the $15 Challenge, Blocks Rocks!, Project Green Thumb, the county T-shirt design contest and Alabama Quilters.

 "The competitions, events and 4-H club meetings all help them be involved in American culture, and it's great," Farris says. "4-H is exposing them to typically American traditions, projects and interests," Campbell says. For instance, this past Christmas, the youth took part in the community's Christmas parade, something most of the children – and their parents – had never heard of. "Most of the kids and parents didn't even know what a parade was, they asked 'what is that?' and it gave them a sense of community pride to be involved," Campbell adds.

And sixth-grader Jennifer Corona, president of the club, is making her first quilt, a first for her and her mother, through 4-H.

Corona, who is 12, and her mother, Lucina, are both learning about quilt-making. The two are combining cross-stitch and sewing to make the quilt.

"It's fun because you get to be with friends and work on a lot of projects," she says. "I'm learning a lot, and I enjoy 4-H."

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About Alabama 4-H

Alabama 4-H is the state's largest youth education organization, reaching more than 107,000 youth between the ages of 9 and 18. There are 1,400 clubs throughout Alabama's 67 counties. 4-H teaches leadership, citizenship and positive character development, and provides programs, competitions, events and activities for youth in rural and urban settings through in-school programs, community clubs and special interest groups. To find out more about Alabama 4-H, go to www.Alabama4H.com.

For more information, contact Janet McCoy, (334) 844-7690; mccoyjl@auburn.edu.