Cultivating character among youth


4-H members grow personally, while helping world around them

Photo by
Julia Jacobson

In the heart of a bitter winter, Joslyn Hays — a member of the Get Your Goat 4-H club — did not expect to be tending the frostbitten ears of a newborn kid. After conducting an ultrasound of Hays’ doe in the fall, the mother did not appear to be pregnant. Thus, the nanny goat was released back into the pasture, while the other mothers were corralled in a heated barn and fed grain in preparation for kidding season.

A few months later, Hays’ infant doe — named Wonder — was born into a frozen field. With extensive care on the part of Hays, Wonder eventually gained back her strength. However, the tips of Wonder’s ears were lost to the cold.

“Her name is Wonder, because it’s a wonder that she’s alive,” Hays explained.

Through the 4-H program in the Gunnison Valley, youth such as Hays are tasked with immense responsibility. While not everyday is as high-stakes as the day of Wonder’s birth, 4-H members are frequently faced with difficult decisions and consequential chores. Whether it be administering a vaccine, trimming hooves or simply building a relationship with an animal, every aspect of 4-H fosters personal growth within members.

Landon Ruggera has been involved with 4-H for the last four years, participating in the local dog obedience and rabbit shows, and competing in the wildlife exhibition. For Ruggera, 4-H has cultivated a sense of sportsmanship and awareness.

“I’ve learned a lot about being a good sport and doing more for the community,” Ruggera explained.

The objective of 4-H is betterment — both of self, and of the world. The name itself references the organization’s pledge of service, which incorporates four tools of betterment beginning with the letter H: head, heart, hands and health. Through handson experience, kids are able to learn more about a specific trade while simultaneously learning about themselves.

Ann Bertschy — known locally as “The Goat Lady” — has run the 4-H goat club for the past 20 years. Bertschy believes that working with animals teaches more than mere vocational skills.

“You learn to negotiate. You learn to compromise,” said Bertschy. “You can’t make a goat do something it doesn’t want to.”

Nine-year-old Delaney Olmsted knows this better than most. At just more than four feet tall, Olmsted has to be both creative and patient if she wishes to tend to her doe, Muffin.

“Sometimes the goats don’t listen to her, and so it teaches her to be flexible,” said Olmsted’s mother, Kalee.

After spending three years in the goat club, Olmstead believes that having something to care for has taught her both responsibility and respect. Yet, the animal lover’s favorite part of 4-H remains the simple joy of bonding with her goats.

Turning to 4-H as an escape from the stress of everyday life is a common theme among members. According to Bertschy, animals can have a therapeutic effect.

“Goats are emotional beings, so the connection is of the heart,” she said.

Yet for Bertschy, gratification comes from connecting with the kids as they learn who they are, and who they want to become.

“Kids haven’t learned to put up a false front,” explained Bertschy. “Who they are and what they are shines through their eyes.”