Winter 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA5

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Teens Reaching Youth

Teens Reaching Youth, a peer helper program, is a model that can be useful throughout Extension. Teen volunteers can be trained with adults to conduct educational programs in a variety of subjects. The teens learn valuable leadership skills, are respected, have fun, and do interesting work.

Judy M. Groff
Associate Extension Professor
4-H and Youth Development
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
North Carolina State University-Raleigh

Where are the teen volunteers in Cooperative Extension? Are adults the only volunteers who can teach, organize activities, offer advice about program priorities, and conduct community service? A national study conducted by Extension on implications of volunteerism indicted that a low percentage of volunteers were below 25 years of age.1

Helping clients become volunteers is a core value of Extension. According to Sanderson, there are at least two major outcomes from involving people as volunteers: (1) it reinforces learning and encourages leadership development and (2) it multiplies the outreach and impact of Extension professionals.2

Teenagers will volunteer when asked. A recent national survey conducted by the Gallup organization reports that youth ages 14 to 17 are volunteering at the same rate as adults or higher.3 In this survey, teenagers indicated they want to contribute in their communities. The two most frequently cited reasons for volunteering were: 47% wanted to do something useful, 38% thought they would enjoy the work.

With increasing demands both on professionals and adult volunteers in a time of shrinking financial resources, Extension can't afford to ignore teenagers as a valuable resource pool. Extension can capitalize on the developmental needs of youth to do something useful and to assume adult-life roles. The peer helper model applied to youth leadership development offers teens meaningful volunteer experiences and Extension a way to expand program efforts.

Peer Helper Model

Peer helper programs offer teenagers an opportunity to contribute while simultaneously helping themselves. According to Resnik and Gibbs, peer helper programs strive to: generate meaningful involvement and responsibilities for youth and encourage participation of youth in real-life decisions, channel peer pressure and normal energies and risk-taking tendencies toward constructive ends, and provide youth with skills through training in a peer-group context. They maintain that since peer programs foster intergroup communication, the attitude and style of the adult leader is a key factor in the success of the peer program.4

Research shows teens need adults to be involved with them in these programs and to value their ideas as well as the labor they contribute. In Pathways to Adulthood, Steppe and Hughes argue for a change in adult attitudes and philosophies toward youth.

We simply cannot wait until the later teen years to begin respecting youth as individuals, affording them the dignity to make their own decisions. If we accept this basic premise, then it follows that we must teach our young people the intangible skills of informed decision-making, thereby fostering their self- esteem.5

With this philosophy in mind, the North Carolina State University 4-H and Youth Development Department developed the Teens Reaching Youth (TRY) program in 1986.

Teens Reaching Youth

Teens Reaching Youth, a peer helper program, is a model that can be useful throughout Extension. Teen volunteers can be trained with adults to conduct educational programs in a variety of subjects. Community development programs where youth issues are the focus is one example. Teens are also interested in environmental and family issues. Imagine the impact of a teen team conducting a lesson on water quality to a group of senior citizens. Teens have received high marks from coaches on both competence and dependability.

The broad educational objectives of TRY are for teenagers to increase self-esteem and feelings of belonging in their community and to assume responsibility for self and others. The program objectives are accomplished through different levels of participation:

Level 1. Teens teach younger youth ages six to 11.
Level 2. Teens develop and test lesson plans and sequence learning experiences for youth.
Level 3. Teens involve and teach other teens to teach younger youth.

The program was designed to bridge three life stages from adults to teens to younger youths. Adults are involved with teens as coaches and mentors at all levels. Teenagers work with younger youth as well as their peers, providing them with information and positive role models. Having the younger age group as learners makes teens feel needed, respected, and loved, thus meeting basic developmental needs.

The TRY program is experiential. Adult coaches are trained with teens in the same setting. They do the same things and have equal power. Learners are involved in role play, group discussion, simulations, and skits as they examine each of the main concepts. The setting is an informal, low cost, retreat environment. Here trainers (Level 3) experience the curriculum they will use to plan and conduct a TRY retreat within their county or area. TRY teams (Level 1) who participate in the county or area retreat agree to teach six hours of subject matter to younger youth. If teams have special interests in an area where a curriculum guide isn't available, they can write their own lesson plans and test them. The writers' (Level 2) agreement requires additional help from the adult coach and 4-H agent. This help would be in the form of identifying resources, brainstorming, and analyzing how youth would react to different learning experiences.

Research Methods and Results

Evaluation was designed into the program from the beginning. Of interest were impacts of the program on participants and coaches, perceptions of its value, and effectiveness of the delivery processes. The primary data collection tools were: (1) an adaptation of the Anomie scale, which measures feelings of alientation;6 (2) a skills checklist developed for each level of the program; (3) self-anchoring scales for each of the concepts of marketing, teaching, and planning;7 and (4) a semantic differential to measure adult participants' attitudes toward two concepts-"teenagers" and "coach."8 All instruments were packaged and administered as pre- and post-tests during TRY retreats.

The majority (62%) of teen participants were between the ages of 13-15; the majority (63%) were female. In addition, 43% of participants were new to 4-H. The Anomie pre-test mean score of 13.11 increased on the post-test to 13.71. The t-test showed it was a significant difference at the .001 level, indicating the reduction in teen feelings of alienation.

The results during the first testing year confirmed the two program objectives were met. In addition, both teens and adults felt they'd improved their leadership skills by participating in TRY. Both the skills checklist and self-anchoring scales showed significant changes for all participants in knowledge of marketing, teaching, and planning a teen leadership retreat.

Over the five years since TRY was introduced in North Carolina 4-H, almost 2,000 teens have completed the program and then moved into other areas of leadership at school, in 4-H, or in the community. A TRY and Students Against Drunk Driving adviser from Cary High School said it best: "I was so pleased to see one of my girls run for SADD President. She would never have had enough confidence to do that before."

Program participation increased dramatically for the first few years, but recently has leveled off. The model itself has been adopted by other organizations-the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Alcohol and Drug Defense Unit, and North Carolina Cancer Society initiated collaborative programs with 4-H using the TRY model for program delivery. Another group, Reading Is Fundamental, is currently developing a literacy program with TRY as the core method.

Summary and Discussion

North Carolina's 4-H Teens Reaching Youth program has effectively involved teens as volunteers through meaningful leadership experiences. As a peer helper program, TRY prepares teens to contribute in their community by teaching younger youth. A progression of leadership roles are available so teens can expand their leadership skills by performing different roles with different audiences. Recognition and respect by adults, peers, and younger youth enhances self-esteem and teens' sense of belonging in their community.

Teenagers, who were all first-year 4-Hers, made statements like:

  • "It made me feel good to work with the little children."
  • "They hug me and confide in me when they have a problem."
  • "I feel like I will be a better parent because of TRY."
  • "I'm going to volunteer to work with 4-H again this summer in the day camp program."

These comments are typical of others expressed by teens in Oregon, Montana, Delaware, and other states where TRY is being adopted. Judy Bracher, a volunteer in Oregon and TRY coach said: "This was a wonderful opportunity for me. I have been able to evaluate my own leadership skills and make improvement when necessary. The TRY program certainly allows room for adults to share knowledge with teens and show them how important they are to our society."

Extension has the ability to tap this underused volunteer resource. In the act of volunteering, teens learn leadership and subject-matter skills. Peer helper programs like 4-H Teens Reaching Youth can enable Extension to involve youth to expand the organization's capacity to reach new audiences. The teens learn valuable leadership skills, are respected, have fun, and do interesting work.


1. Partners in Action: Summary of Phase II Conclusions and Implications, 4-H (Madison: University of Wisconsin, Department of Continuing and Vocational Education, 1986).

2. D. R. Sanderson, "Module 1: Understanding Cooperative Extension: Our Origins, Our Opportunities, Working with Our Publics," E. J. Boone, ed. (Raleigh, North Carolina: Cooperative Extension Service, 1988), p. 58.

3. V. Hodgkinson and others, Giving and Volunteering Among American Teenagers (Washington, D.C.: Independent Sector, 1991), pp.14-17.

4. H. Resnik and J. Gibbs, Types of Peer Program Approaches in Adolescents Peer Pressure Theory, Correlates and Program Implications for Drug Abuse Prevention (Rockville, Maryland: NIDA, 1986).

5. S. C. Steppe and D. M. Hughes, "Oasis Center: A Continuum of Services for Independent Living," in Pathways to Adulthood: Creating Successful Programs to Prepare Teens for Independence, K. G. Mayne, ed. (Tulsa: University of Oklahoma, The National Resource Center for Youth Services, 1988), p. 69.

6. E. E. White and E. J. Boone, Decision-Making and Communication Patterns of Disadvantaged Farm Families in the North Carolina Plains Area (Raleigh: North Carolina Experiment Station, 1976).

7. F. P. Kilpatrick and H. Cantril, Self Anchoring Scaling: A Measure of Individual's Reality World (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1960).

8. C. Osgood, G. Succi, and P. Tannenbaum, The Measurement of Meaning (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1957).