4-H Builds Strong Local Partnerships to Support Underserved Youth in 40 States

National 4-H CouncilEstablished in 1914, 4-H is America’s largest youth development organization, with the mission of empowering nearly 6 million young people across the United States with the skills to lead for a lifetime. 4-H empowers individuals to be true leaders – young people who have confidence; know how to work well with others; endure through challenges; and stick to a job until it gets done.

4-H is delivered by Cooperative Extension – a community of 110 public, land grant universities that reach every county and parish across the country. Through in-school and afterschool programs, school and community clubs, and 4-H camps, 4-H provides experiences where young people learn by doing. Youth complete hands-on projects in areas like health, science, agriculture, and citizenship in a positive environment where they receive guidance from adult mentors and are encouraged to take on leadership roles.


Mentoring Model

Since 2010, in partnership with land grant universities and the Cooperative Extension System, the 4-H National Mentoring Program (4-H NMP) has incorporated positive youth development core principles to improve the well-being of youth 17 years old or younger and identified as at-risk or high risk for involvement in the juvenile justice system, especially underserved populations. The program engages youth in formal and informal one-on-one, group mentoring, and/or peer mentoring relationships tailored to the needs of the youth population. Mentoring services are targeted toward American Indian and Alaska Native youth both on and off reservations; children of parents on active military duty; children of incarcerated parents; LGBTQ+ youth; youth with disabilities; youth in rural communities; and other underserved youth who meet program requirements. In its seventh year of implementation, the 4-H NMP is currently in 40 states, 44 land-grant universities, 220 local sites, and is reaching more than 7,000 youth (62,000 youth cumulatively between 2010 and 2016).

Four Programs of Distinction (evidence-based, peer-reviewed programs reflecting the highest quality 4-H youth development programs) serve as the vehicle to help achieve a lasting mentoring relationship: 4-H Tech Wizards, 4-H Youth and Families with Promise (YFP), 4-H Living Interactive Family Education (LIFE), and 4-H Youth Futures. Each program incorporates the six core standards of the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring. The 4-H Tech Wizards program, developed by Oregon State University, engages underserved youth in a group mentoring program that focuses on STEM education through mentoring and community service. 4-H YFP, developed from Utah State University, is a prevention program serving youth with below-average school performance, poor social skills and/or weak family bonds with one-on-one mentoring and family strengthening activities. The 4-H LIFE program, developed by the University of Missouri, uses parenting classes, 4-H club meetings, and group mentoring to strengthen parent/child bonds and develop leadership and decision-making skills in children with incarcerated parents or youth in the juvenile justice system. Finally, 4-H Youth Futures: College Within Reach, also developed by the University of Missouri, promotes college as an obtainable goal and provides mentoring services and instrumental support to under-represented, vulnerable and first-generation high-school youth.

The goal of the mentoring model is to provide high quality, consistent mentoring relationships with youth not traditionally reached by 4-H. These relationships are typically formed in the context of one of the four programs (as described above) that best fits the need of the youth, family, and community.

The 4-H National Mentoring Program is managed by a core team at National 4-H Council, however, programming is implemented through the land grant universities and approved local sites that meet the requirement to reach at-risk, high risk, and underserved youth across the United States. Mentors are recruited from within the local community in which the youth live. Examples include but are not limited to: community organizations, non-profits, high schools, colleges, and faith-based organizations. In some of 4-H’s Tribal programs, for example, mentors are often Tribal members, and programming is adapted to promote and respect Tribal customs.


The Importance of Local Partnerships

4-HBesides the focus on positive youth development, 4-H identifies its focus on developing meaningful local partnerships as a key ingredient for effective programming. These partnerships create buy-in from the community, meet a need for members and their families, and build the sustainability of a program that will be there long after traditional grant funding dries up. Many 4-H mentoring programs have created strong relationships with their local school systems, providing consistent academic support and a safe place for the youth to go and learn after school. As a result, inadvertent partnerships often form. In West Virginia, for example, a state-wide initiative is in place to provide specialized attention for youth who have been engaged by the police or had emergency services called to their home. The principal at a child’s school is informed of the occurrence, and due to the relationship with the local 4-H mentoring program, the principal reaches out to the youth’s mentor to alert him or her for intervention. Recently, a student was removed from their home and placed with guardians; the mentor was notified immediately and was a source of support during the difficult transition.

In Maine, a partnership with the local middle school has led to STEM classes and mentoring occurring as part of a weekly curriculum within the school. A local high school, concerned over difficulties with students as they transitioned from 8th to 9th grade, has partnered with a local Maine mentoring site to provide full-time academy-style, project-based learning for all 9th grade students. Students are bused to the program’s site and spend half the day there, receiving credits in science, math, language arts, social science, and physical education. Preliminary results have indicated a number of positive impacts for these youth, including increases in standardized tests for the local school.

In addition to providing well-rounded support and resources for youth, these partnerships have been used to increase the reach of the programs, and the mentoring programs have been utilized to leverage additional partnerships and funding sources.

4-H identifies its biggest accomplishment as the way program staff consistently strive to improve. The motto of 4-H – “to make the best better” – is a driver of 4-H’s programs. Staff and mentors continue to commit to reaching the most hard-to-reach youth, ensuring that the highest quality programming is made available to youth who need it the most.


Connections to Evidence-Based Practice

4-H measures success using outcome measures, including noted behaviors tracked by OJJDP. Those measures include perception of social support, social competence, and strength of family relationships. These measures are collected with the use of pre-test/post-test designed surveys. This process supports 4-H in improving the quality of its programs on a continuous basis.

4-H Tech Wizards, 4-H YFP, and 4-H LIFE are evidence-based programs that have been designated United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Programs of Distinction. 4-H Programs of Distinction is a recognition program from USDA/NIFA that highlights high quality youth development programs within Cooperative Extension occurring in communities across the United States. Furthermore, the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring are infused into the design and implementation of each program.

4-H continues to review the research on mentoring to ensure programming includes best practices to promote meaningful relationships, and positive youth development frameworks remain relevant to the organization’s work. The 4-H National Mentoring Program continues to view youth as assets and is motivated to enhance positive youth trajectories while reducing delinquency.


Next Steps 

The 4-H National Mentoring Program team plans to continue to look at empirical research to guide the direction of its mentoring efforts. Next steps will include a more intentional review of their data and more extensive analysis of sites that provide community-specific services, such as mentoring in tribal communities.

The 4-H National Mentoring Program encourages all of its local sites to reach out to the OJJDP NMRC for any technical assistance needs and consult its website often for information useful to program delivery. The 4-H National Mentoring Program plans to reach out to the NMRC to consult on possible evaluation methods as they continue forward with more intentional reviews of their impact.


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