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Smiths path leads her right back home to 4-H
abby smith 5
Abby Smith is right back at home as Effingham Countys 4-H agent. She is about to complete her first month back on the job. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

It might be an understatement to say Abby Smith feels right at home in her new job.

Smith is the Effingham County 4-H agent, a position she has held before and is happy to have again. And 4-H is a program she’s long been associated with.

“It was a comfortable feeling when I walked back into the office,” she said.

Smith got started, as most 4-H’ers do, in the fifth grade, when the program is introduced to students. By then, she was well aware of what 4-H meant — her older brother and sister participated in 4-H.

“ I knew about it from when I was in first or second grade,” she said. “I was very much involved in 4-H.”

As a fifth grader, Smith started showing lambs and started taking part in project demonstrations.

“I stayed involved throughout my high school days,” she said.

A native of Springfield, Smith was born and raised in Effingham County. She later matriculated to Georgia Southern University for her undergraduate — a bachelor of science in public relations — degree and her graduate degree, a master’s of education in counseling education. Smith and her husband Nicky have been married for almost 10 years and have a 4-year-old son, Tucker.

While at Georgia Southern, Smith worked as a part-time 4-H program assistant and later became the full-time program assistant.

Smith later became the 4-H agent, serving in that role from 2004-06.

After that, she went back to Georgia Southern to complete her graduate degree and then went to work in the school system.

“This position came back open, and I just felt it was where I needed to be,” she said.

Bill Tyson, the Effingham County Extension Coordinator, said he was glad to get Smith back into the fold and working as the Effingham 4-H agent.

“Her educational background and previous experience is an asset to Effingham County 4-H,” he said. “Abby has hit the ground running, and we are excited about the future.”

What 4-H offers

Smith says 4-H goes beyond the agricultural side of its programs and offerings. It has a lot to offer children from fifth through 12th grades.

“Traditionally, 4-H was seen as the cows and chickens, the ag side of it,” Smith said. “But there’s really so much more now we can offer kids. We really focus on leadership skills, public speaking skills and community involvement. That’s one of our big focuses, making sure the kids are appreciative of their community and seeing how they can give back.

“It is a wonderful program that has strong values and it can offer a lot of leadership skills, public speaking skills and community awareness for kids to be involved with,” Smith continued. “There’s a lot of opportunities students can be involved with and can broaden their understanding of what’s going on in the world.”

As a former 4-H’er, Smith wants those in the program and those who might be interested to see that what they gain from taking part in 4-H can help them now and later in life.

“It’s just amazing the skills you can learn from 4-H and how it can help you down the road,” she said. “A lot of times you don’t see it, that ‘the portfolio I put together really did help me when I had to put a resume together.’”

Through 4-H, she explained, students are exposed to different places and experiences, such as conferences and projects they might not otherwise get their hands on.

“A lot of times, kids are missing out on the educational extracurricular opportunities,” Smith said. “So as the 4-H agent, I would like to be able to bring some of these opportunities to the kids and open some doors to experiences they can’t get in the classroom. There’s a lot of things we’re able to offer that we can add to what they’re getting in the classroom.”

The ag side, though, Smith pointed out, remains very important and can be fun.

“That’s still a huge part of our program,” she said. “But I think there’s been a misconception that that’s the only part of program.”

Getting started and reaching the audience

The 4-H program is brought into every fifth and sixth grade classroom. Students take an active role, electing officers and getting the opportunity to do presentations.

“Each classroom is its own little 4-H club,” Smith said.

They meet every month except December and April, skipping the latter so as not to interfere with the Criterion Referenced Competency Tests.

In the seventh and eighth grades, they become Junior 4-H’ers and meetings are held after school at 6:30 p.m. The 4-H’ers meet as one group across the county and are divided by school at that point.

“They start with the community projects, from helping at the nursing home to working at a soup kitchen to donating items for the needy,” Smith said.

The process is the same for the high school 4-H group, and there are about 20 to 25 Junior 4-H’ers and a similar number for the Senior, or high school, group.

With the older kids, 4-H has to compete with a wide range of other interests, so there is flexibility.

“We also try to be understanding that kids are involved in other activities,” Smith said. “We try to make sure that we offer alternate activities or alternate times. Most school-based activities are right after school.”

It also means letting students know what they can get out of 4-H and how it can help them.

“We just try to offer the opportunities and market the experiences they’ll have,” she said. “There are a lot of travel experiences and scholarship experiences as the kids are getting into high school. We try to make sure the kids understand all the opportunities we can offer and try to be a presence in the schools.”

The base of the 4-H program is the same. Yet how 4-H gets the word across about what it does and what it offers has changed with the times. There is a Facebook page and Smith sends emails to students and parents to let them know what’s coming.

A service learning opportunity for a family in need came through suddenly from the United Way. Smith emailed the students to have them bring in baby items to the next meeting.

“It was very nice to not to have to wait until they get to the meeting, tell them about it and then hopefully the next week bring it back in,” she said.

Smith called Facebook a huge communication tool, and she’s working on getting that page up to date.

“So many kids are on it,” she said. “It’s an instant way to get the message out when we have things coming up. The solid base of the program is the same. It’s how we market the activities that can be different.”