ITHACA, N.Y. –– Tompkins County 4-H, an organization aimed at youth development, held its annual 4-H Fair after months of coronavirus driven uncertainty. 

Over the last 12 months, 4-H leadership encouraged their leaders and the fair board to think outside the box –– to figure out a way to have a summer fair and find ways to connect with the youth enrolled in clubs. The fair board came up with creative ideas to host both the 2020 fair and the recent 2021 fair. Most leaders found new ways to keep their students engaged. 

While not fully back to the capacity of past events, this year’s fair was described as “nearly normal” after last year’s mostly virtual event. Brenda Carpenter, Cornell Cooperative Extension Community Educator and 4-H Youth Development, said the in-person event did not include any hands-on activities, games, or entertainment. There was still a chicken bbq for the public, but it was takeout only rather than eating on the 4-H grounds like in the past. The silent auctions were also cancelled. 

There was still plenty to do with several exhibits, events, animals and contests. and different carnival food each day. All student exhibits were stationary in the pole barn with evaluations scheduled for each member. In addition, a website was created by a 13-year-old girl for those who couldn’t make it to the fair. Share the Fair had an online events schedule, live feeds from the fairgrounds, interviews, story time, and contests, along with videos from various clubs showcasing what they learn and do when they meet.

In 2020 the fair was significantly different –– being held mostly online and closed to the public. The fair was only open to the 4-H families, and for the in-person portions held mostly outside, with masks required. Carpenter said they were scrambling right up until the event itself last year, trying to implement many safety plans. 

The exhibits were not on display like usual and had to take place in the pole barn with six feet tables keeping the exhibitor and judge socially distant. Youth exhibitors had assigned appointment times where they came to their station, set up, and were evaluated. Tables and chairs were sanitized between exhibitors along with a limited number of family members in attendance. A volunteer designed two portable sinks that could be heated so proper hand washing could occur. In addition, most activities were made virtual such as a talent show, game night, and knowledge contests.

The difficulties of the pandemic weren’t limited to just the fair, the 4-H program and club leaders faced challenges they never had before. Urban Outreach Services, a program that aims to “take the 4-H Youth Development model and make it accessible to all audiences in our community.” dealt with more barriers than the typical club because it couldn’t just be solved with Zoom. They needed a tangible way to reach and help the families they serve. 

The club is offered daily and over the summer to kids living in the Northside, Overlook Terrace, Southview Gardens and West Village apartments. Tami Snyder, a volunteer Urban Outreach Services leader, said more than 70 percent of the families in those communities don’t have vehicles. So volunteers bring the program to them. However, when the pandemic hit, it made figuring out how to serve those kids and their families much more difficult. 

Transportation was the biggest issue for these families especially during March and April 2020. Snyder said they called their community partners, Food Bank of the Southern Tier, United Way, and Gadabout, and coordinated efforts to deliver boxes of food to more than 70 families. They did this three more times. 

Families didn’t have to be enrolled in 4-H to receive a box either, Snyder said they opened it up to every family in those communities. Urban Outreach contacted the families every week to find out who wanted a box and how much they would need. The families loved that it was fresh, healthy food they could eat. 

“One of the drivers said that one time when they delivered the boxes of food, the families were all out on the balconies cheering,” Snyder said. 

She added that they also helped families with disabilities or health concerns get the help they needed, assisted families who speak English as a second language, and provided cleaning and sanitizing supplies.  

Urban Outreach Services team leads also agreed to release funds to buy and send school supplies to families in April 2020. These supplies included STEM activities. 

The West Village program was able to be in person again in summer 2020 whereas the Northside program which is larger and has more youth in it, had to move online. Ramona Cornell is a 4-H Urban Outreach Educator who leads the Northside program. Snyder said she did an incredible job with moving online and keeping the kids engaged. They had 40 youths and 10 teen volunteers attend online. 

The online program was a summer package of activities that included sewing, yoga, STEM among others. Students even wrote a joke book. 

Cornell was able to teach onsite again from September to November 2020, but when numbers spiked again, they moved back to online. This is when attendance online grew. Snyder said their online attendance was better than onsite. They had 64 kids separated into 5-12 and 13-18-year-olds. Leaders also provided monthly activity bags that contained around $60 worth of stuff. 

Both programs moved back to meeting in person in April 2021 and have maintained since. Other 4-H clubs face similar problems and dealt with the back and forth of online and in person. 

There were a few clubs that stayed very active and connected with their youth. Carpenter spoke highly of three club leaders who did exceptional despite a rough year – Sweets and Treats, Jr. Tailwaggers, and Namaste Friends. 

“All three of these leaders did outstanding work during the pandemic, maintained members, provided fun, engaging, and educational activities,” Carpenter said. 

Evelyn Thompson who volunteer leads Sweets and Treats baking club began Zoom clubs once a month so youth could keep learning how to bake. When she started them, she had 11 youth but eventually had 13 as more and more parents looked for something for their kids to do during the pandemic. 

​”We chose Zoom because the students could still bake in their own homes and I could still teach them skills. I could guide and direct. Also, they could see each other and talk to each other. This offered them a time of socialization with their friends,” she said. 

Thompson also changed things up to keep the students engaged by playing baking-themed games over Zoom and offering gift card prizes to winners. 

She said they met in person in October 2020 with masks, social distancing, and sanitizer stations in place. However, with numbers rising close to the holidays, she chose to meet over Zoom again until February 2021 when she started in person clubs again. They were able to keep meeting in person till they ended their year in June. You can see what they do during club time in a video here

Cindy Wagner, volunteer leader of Jr. Tailwaggers, also moved to Zoom and even did a photo dog costume contest and dog trick video submission where they could receive a Trick Dog Certificate. This was done on a state-wide level which Wagner said was successful and was glad to offer it to kids all over the state. 

“I heard and saw the urgent need to be a part of something and nothing is better than being with your dog. These kids have worked so hard through all of this and this was the one outlet that we could be safe and keep the distance, but still have socialization,” she said. 

Moving to Zoom was a little more challenging for this club since they meet once a week rather than once a month. This helped push Wagner to decide to meet outside in person in spring 2020 with masks, social distancing, and sanitizing stations. She chose to not meet during December 2020 and January 2021 to be safe. They met in person again in February 2021 but with limited attendance. With the dog program, it was actually easier to keep the kids six feet apart because they have to stay apart in order to keep the dogs safe. 

The fair and these clubs are just a small portion of all Tompkins County 4-H has to offer. For those interested in learning more about 4-H or want to sign up for a club, visit here, call 607-272-2292, or find them on Facebook.