August 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB1

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Increasing the 4-H Participation of Youth from High-Risk Environments

A study was conducted to learn how 4-H agents might facilitate the participation of youth from high risk environments in the 4-H program. Eight family service consultants serving three rural Oregon counties were interviewed to learn of their experiences in trying to successfully involve high-risk youth in community-based youth organizations. This article identifies some of the barriers to participation encountered by high-risk youth and also identifies some of the actions 4-H agents might take both within the 4-H program and more generally within the community to foster the successful participation of these youth.

Beverly B. Hobbs
4-H Youth Development Specialist and Assistant Professor
Oregon State University Extension
Corvallis, Oregon
Internet address:


Community supports are critical to the positive development of children and youth. While families and schools have the greatest influence on youth development, no one individual or institution can be tasked with sole responsibility. The personal development that must occur, the skills and competencies that must be achieved, also depend upon the resources of the broader community (Blyth, 1992; Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1992; Lerner, 1995; Schorr, 1989).

One level of community support for young people is composed of primary supports, those everyday opportunities that are open to all youth and that focus on positive youth development as opposed to treatment-oriented services designed for youth with serious problems. Primary supports enrich young people's lives and supplement the support they receive from their families and schools (Chapin Hall Center for Children, 1997). The 4-H program is one example of a primary support. Libraries, museums, and recreation and sports leagues are others. The benefits of primary supports for all youth are readily recognized. Unfortunately, however, they are not always equally available. Many youth-serving organizations serve primarily youth from advantaged families. Disadvantaged youth, often those most in need of opportunities and supports, are many times not served (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1995).

The 4-H program has long prided itself on the opportunities it offers for all youth, including youth from high-risk backgrounds. However, attracting disadvantaged youth as participants can present a challenge. In many instances these young people are not the ones who readily come forward to enroll in a 4-H club or participate in other 4-H activities.

The study reported here was designed to help 4-H agents learn more about how they might encourage participation of high-risk youth in the 4-H program. Specifically, this study explores the process used by family service consultants to connect high-risk youth with community-based youth programs in three rural Oregon counties.

Data Collection and Analysis

A qualitative research design was employed in the study. Data were collected through personal interviews with eight family service consultants serving three rural Oregon counties. Family service consultants are employed to help families identify their needs and potential community social supports and then to help connect families with those social supports. Five of the consultants were employed by the educational service district that serves the school districts in the three counties. Three of the consultants were employed by community-based family service programs. The eight consultants interviewed represented the total family service consultant staff in the three- county area.

Families were referred to the consultants primarily by local schools in response to youth who were demonstrating significant academic and/or behavior problems. The needs of the families varied from specific to comprehensive, and the time a consultant worked with a family ranged from several weeks to several months. On average, approximately 60 students and their families were annually served by each of the consultants. Half the families required intensive, comprehensive services as opposed to limited, short-term services.

During the 1997-1998 school year, one of the goals of the family service consultants in the tri-county area was to involve every referred youth in at least one positive, community-based youth experience during the time the consultant worked with the family. Data were maintained by the consultants as to whether or not youth participated, and if they did, what the nature of the participation was. A positive youth experience was loosely defined and included one-time events such as participation in a youth summit as well as more ongoing participation with a youth group such as 4-H or a mentoring program. A key characteristic of the experience, however, was that it must target all youth in the community as opposed to one designed for youth with problems.

Consultants were interviewed between May and September of 1998 using a semi-structured format. Interviews lasted between one and two hours. Four general questions guided the interviews:

  • Why was involving youth in a positive, community-based youth experience chosen as a primary program objective?

  • What was the process used to involve youth?

  • What factors presented barriers to involvement?

  • What factors facilitated involvement?

Field notes made during the interviews constituted the data base for the study. After all interviews were concluded the data were read, coded, and analyzed inductively. Conclusions were subsequently drawn and verified (Miles & Huberman, 1994).


Importance of community-based youth activities

All eight of the consultants recognized the important role the larger community plays in supporting youth. Given their daily work with schools and families, consultants were quick to point out that schools and families cannot provide everything youth need. Community resources are also needed to complement and, in some cases, to supplement the support provided by families and schools. Although 1997-1998 marked the first year that the family service consultants specified positive, community-based youth experiences as an outcome of their services, linking youth and families with community-based youth programs was not a new strategy for any of the consultants. The opportunities the programs offered to youth in terms of connecting with caring adults, developing social skills and other competencies, and participating as part of a larger group were all important to the positive development of the youth they served.

Process of connecting youth with activities

Consultants followed a three-step process in making the connections. First, keeping in mind the interests and needs of the youth, available activities were identified. This was accomplished by contacting youth organizations known to the consultant and by talking with representatives of youth-serving agencies who might know of additional opportunities. Because communities change continually, keeping informed of new developments was an ongoing process. This pertained not only to new program opportunities, but changes in the way older programs might be accessed For instance, a program might change its fee scale or participation requirements.

In the second step, consultants met with representatives from potential programs to discuss the special needs of a particular youth, if any, and to confirm that the program was prepared to work with him or her. Needed special accommodations were identified and ranged from finding a baseball glove or money to buy special shoes, to helping youth workers understand the best way to handle any behavior problems that might arise. The purpose of the discussion was to ensure a high probability that the youth would be accepted and be able to successfully participate. Once a good match of youth and activity/program was found, the youth and family were informed of the opportunity.

The third step, and one the consultants found crucial in many cases, consisted of their efforts to make sure families followed through and the youth did participate. While families and youth were supportive verbally of participation, it often took special attention from consultants to actually make participation happen. Consultants made phone calls to encourage youth to attend, to remind families of the time and place of activities, and to help families problem solve when difficulties arose that might prevent participation. In some instances, consultants transported youth to activities when other transportation plans did not work out.

Barriers to involvement

At each step of the process, challenges to successful participation arose. Consultants found identifying potential programs to be problematic and time consuming. Information was scattered with no central source in many of the communities served. In particular it was sometimes difficult to find out who the contact was for some organizations. Another challenge was the availability of programs. While a mix of programs was often available in more populated areas, opportunities in outlying areas were few and inconsistent year to year. In several instances the family service consultant took the responsibility for marshaling community members to develop a needed program.

Once potential programs were identified, other constraining factors surfaced when possibilities were more closely explored. Cost of participation was one barrier. Many families could not afford program fees or the cost of special equipment. If scholarships were not available, youth could not participate. Other activities required parent participation from time to time. Not all parents could or wanted to volunteer.

A lack of transportation posed additional problems. In most areas there was limited, if any, public transportation available, and many families lacked either the time or the vehicle needed to transport their children to activities. Yet another challenge was the problem behaviors some youth presented that were difficult to accommodate in mainstream activities. Unless an organization was prepared to deal with problem behaviors, the chances of these youth succeeding in the program were greatly diminished.

Even when a plan for youth participation was worked out, actual participation was sometimes thwarted by a lack of follow-through. For the most part, the youth and families served by the consultants faced a number of social and personal problems, including poor health, limited income, drug and alcohol abuse, and poor personal and family management skills. In some families preoccupation with these problems precluded parent support for youth participation, even if all that was required was to provide a reminder of an upcoming activity. Some youth, themselves, refused to follow through with plans because when the time came to go, they lacked the self-confidence needed to take the steps to initiate participation.

Facilitating factors

The family service consultants identified several factors and strategies that helped make the connection between youth and programs successful. As would seem obvious, the greater the number of available programs, the easier it was to find appropriate placements for youth. Numbers not withstanding, however, connections were also easier to make when information about existing activities was readily available. Two of the communities served produced listings of all activities available for youth during the summer months. The lists included a brief description of the activity as well as a contact telephone number. Consultants commented that having such information year round would be of great assistance not only to themselves but also to families. They further noted that it would be important to include information about any scholarships or sliding fee scales that applied to activities on the list. Parents might be discouraged by fees listed with activities unless they knew that some financial support was possible.

In a number of cases the lack of follow-through by families was overcome by having a volunteer act as a support. The volunteer provided transportation to and from the activity and/or called to remind the youth to attend. In some instances, the volunteer was the adult leader for the activity, but this was not always the case.

Another strategy that helped to encourage youth participation was special outreach to families to introduce them to a particular youth organization. In one town, the English as a Second Language teacher collaborated with the local Boys & Girls Club and hosted a tour of the club for several Hispanic families. Once the families made the visit, they were more encouraging of their children's participation.

Conclusion and Implications for 4-H Agents

The experience of the family service consultants documented in this study provides insight as to how community-based youth organizations might better reach and serve high-risk youth. There are steps that might be taken to increase the availability of programs as well as to support participation once youth become involved. In particular, there are a number of actions that 4-H agents might apply at both the program and community level to foster the successful involvement of high-risk youth in community-based activities.

At the program level, 4-H agents should attempt to communicate regularly with school counselors and social workers as well as youth-serving agencies to be sure professional staff are aware of the opportunities available through the 4-H program. This would facilitate placement of youth from high-risk settings not only after they present problems, but also earlier, when participation in 4-H might provide the support needed to keep a young person on a positive development track.

In-service days held by school districts and interagency trainings involving multiple youth-serving social agencies are two arenas agents might use to provide information. The value of such meetings is not only derived from informing others about 4-H and thus increasing the likelihood that youth will be introduced to 4-H. The meetings also present an opportunity to find out what additional types of youth programs may be needed in the community.

4-H agents should also be ready to work with the case managers of high-risk youth to learn how to support the youth's participation in the 4-H program. For those youth who may present behavior management issues, the case manager will be an important resource in helping the 4-H program choose appropriate activities and structure participation in such a way that success is fostered. Case managers can also help agents develop an understanding of the barriers to participation faced by youth and how the 4-H program can accommodate special needs. For instance, transportation plans may need to be made or a "buddy" chosen for the youth, someone within the club who will call and encourage him to attend the next meeting. Flexibility within the program may also be needed. Not all families can be expected to provide the same level of support as do families from more advantaged circumstances. Camp scholarships may be needed or parent involvement may have to be made optional rather than required for youth participation in some activities.

The 4-H agent's leadership at the community level can also significantly promote the involvement of high-risk youth in youth programs. As an educator, the 4-H agent possesses the skills to help community members understand the importance of youth organizations and the role all adults may play in supporting programs. Increased support and participation by community members should result in an expansion of programs that will benefit all youth.

The 4-H agent can also help increase access to programs by facilitating cooperative efforts among community-based youth organizations. One outcome might be the development of a centralized listing of program opportunities. Another, more involved undertaking, would be finding ways to pool resources for the development of programs to address unmet needs. For instance, many high-risk youth need a daily after-school program to help them productively occupy their time. While the 4-H program may not provide an after-school program itself, 4-H could support a community-based program by helping to train the staff or by providing curriculum materials.

The value of community-based youth organizations, the support they provide and the opportunities they create, extends to all youth. Youth organizations have an obligation to look beyond the question of how their programs meet the needs of those who come forward and join and ask what must be done to attract and support youth from high-risk circumstances who are less apt to participate. As youth development professionals, 4-H agents are in a position to provide the leadership necessary within the 4-H program and within the broader community to make youth programs more accessible to youth from high-risk backgrounds.


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