February 2004 // Volume 42 // Number 1 // Ideas at Work // 1IAW4

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4-H Site-Based Youth Development Programs: Reaching Underserved Youth in Targeted Communities

The very youth in most need of programs are often left outside the programming circle. Reaching underserved youth is the impetus behind this article. The purpose is two-fold: a) to discuss the reasons why many youth programs fall short in reaching underserved youth and to offer practice-oriented recommendations and b) to describe the site-based youth development program--an innovative delivery method--and its effectiveness. Sources of data include summative and formative program evaluations from Urban 4-H Youth Development programs in Minnesota and supporting secondary research.

Jennifer A. Skuza
University of Minnesota Extension Service
Urban Youth Development Office
Minneapolis, Minnesota

Youth-serving organizations and the practitioners can play a critical role in the lives of young people by providing intentional learning environments and by encouraging positive youth development in community contexts. Yet the very youth in most need of these supports are often left outside the programming circle (General Accounting Office, 1998; Pittman, 1991; Pittman, Irby, Tolman, Yohalem, & Ferber, 2001). This gap can be explained in part by inadequate systematic efforts to reach underserved audiences, by the narrow scope of programs, and by the lack of within and cross-sector collaborations (Pittman, 1991). One way to reach underserved youth is by offering tailored site-based youth development programs in targeted communities.

Site-Based Youth Development Program

How do you reach underserved youth? The response is simple: "Bring programs into the communities where youth have fewer opportunities and work to involve the youth in programming efforts!" The work that follows is more complicated because it entails intentional strategies designed to engage and retain underserved youth. Pittman (1991) asserts that youth-serving organizations need to increase their efforts to fill a full-range of youth needs by working in new ways.

Site-based youth development programming is an innovative delivery method used during nonschool hours within Minnesota Urban 4-H Youth Development. Its aim is to reach underserved youth with accessible, high-quality, educational youth development programming. Each site is a public or subsidized housing neighborhood with a community center serving as the hosting location for each 4-H program.

The program is designed to reach young people ages 5-19 years. The programming is divided into two age categories: 5-12 years and 13-19 years, with each group meeting separately on a weekly basis through the entire year. The different age groups also come together for intentional cross-age learning experiences.

The site-based youth development programs are organically developed. This means they are developed from the community up rather than from the program down. Residents of the community (youth and adult) provide input into the program-development process. In turn, each site-based program reflects the community in terms of design, methods, and curricula. This delivery method is intended to keep youth development work fresh and relevant while reaching a more comprehensive range of needs.

Youth Teaching Youth

Each neighborhood has numerous organizations working with younger children but few reaching adolescents. Pittman, Irby, Tolman, Yohalem, and Ferber (2001) indicate heavy emphasis on school-based academic achievement overshadows other learning opportunities for adolescents. In turn, older youth not involved with school activities have fewer organized opportunities available to them. In response, Urban 4-H Youth Development developed a youth teaching youth (YTY) component within the site-based programs, and it has become a part of the program delivery system.

Pittman (1991) indicates that youth-serving organizations need to make systematic efforts to reach underserved and marginalized audiences. Here, adolescents are prepared to lead lessons and activities with younger children in their neighborhoods. YTY serves an important role, because it creates intentional learning and leadership opportunities that would not otherwise be available to these adolescents.

A common challenge in youth programming is attracting and retaining adolescents for sustainable periods of time. YTY has overcome this challenge. Over 50 adolescents participate each year. The presence of the adolescents also attracts young children to the program. The programming for younger children has also reached maximum capacity of 150. The adolescents serve as role models and many of the younger children aspire to be in their positions when they grow older.

Occupying Critical Nonschool Hours

The Urban 4-H Youth Development team has carefully crafted a programming schedule to meet the needs identified by individual communities. For instance, in the site-based programs, younger children meet weekly at neighborhood community centers on days when other programming is not occurring. Similarly, the YTY groups meet weekly to plan and prepare for their leadership and teaching roles.

Then, during school breaks (winter holidays, spring break, and summer break), the two groups come together at each site for more intensive programming that is designed to be cross-age. The older youth lead activities and teach sessions with the younger children. The programming is intentionally expanded during school breaks because these are unoccupied hours, and in many cases, fewer programs and services are available.


Site-based youth development programming requires collaboration. A partnership exists between Urban 4-H Youth Development and housing agencies in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Each housing site provides facilities, volunteers, and program supplies, as well as access to other resources (e.g., transportation, scholarships) through their extended partnerships.

Collaboration also exists internally. For instance, Urban 4-H Youth Development collaborates with the metro Extension Simply Good Eating program. Staff, educational materials, program supplies, and other resources are shared through this partnership. As shown by program evaluations, the programming is effective and efficient.

By engaging these agencies and organizations, the reach and impact of programming is increased without duplicating programs or inflating costs. Benson (1997) referred to these types of collaborations as strengthening the first ring of support--youth-serving systems. The collaborations can bring broader attention to youth development work, coordinate efforts necessary to maximize opportunities for young people, and reduce barriers that have historically isolated and insulated youth from educational opportunities.


Youth-serving organizations and the practitioners who work in them are important to the lives of young people. During critical hours, they extend learning through rewarding growth and development experiences. They also foster caring environments that optimize the development of young people in community settings. Pittman (1991) recommends strengthening the role of youth-serving organizations to reach underserved and marginalized youth, to extend programs and services to underserved youth, and to develop within and cross-sector collaboration.

Urban 4-H Youth Development in Minnesota has shown that this is possible. More youth are reached with greater impact by a strengthened and targeted youth-serving system. In turn, the 4-H program is enriched, its youth development initiative is reinforced, and the urban community is invigorated by the wealth of experiences its partners and participants bring to the effort.


Benson, P.L. (1997). All kids are our kids: What communities must do to raise caring and responsible children and adolescents. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

General Accounting Office. (1998).

Pittman, K. (1991). Promoting youth development: Strengthening the role of youth serving and community organizations. Washington, DC: Academy for Educational Development.

Pittman, K., Irby, M., Tolman, J., Yohalem, N., & Ferber, T. (2001). Preventing problems, promoting development, encouraging engagement: Competing priorities or inseparable goals? Takoma Park, MD.: The Forum for Youth Investment, International Youth Foundation. Available at: http://www.forumforyouthinvestment.org/preventproblems.pdf