It’s a beautiful, sunny and unseasonably warm March afternoon, but June Switzer seems right at home in the basement of Mimosa United Church, leading 17 members of the local 4-H lego engineering group.
“The kids just love it,” she says with a smile.
And she’s right. Whether frustrated their lego crane failed to carry a specific weight or celebrating their latest engineering masterpiece, every single 4-Her in the County Road 26 building seemed enthralled with the process.
And therein lies the reason behind Switzer’s unwavering commitment to Wellington County 4-H, even after almost three decades as a leader.
“I like working with kids. I just get inspired by them,” she explained from her family’s nearby home, west of Hillsburgh.
Switzer, a retired teacher who earlier this year celebrated her 60th birthday, likens leading 4-H clubs to teaching in a one room school, which she thinks is really cool.
She explained there is a real need in the community for what kids learn in 4-H clubs, especially considering the same material is not taught in conventional classrooms.
Many falsely assume the clubs’ sole agenda remains agriculture, Switzer said, but they also teach public speaking, fair play, decision making, parliamentary procedure and quality reasoning, as well as helping to increase self confidence and improve social skills.
“A lot of people think, ‘we don’t have cows so my kids can’t be in it,’ ” she said, adding anyone and everyone is welcome. “It’s really all about skills and leadership, not raising calves and judging cows.”
In fact, Switzer herself has covered countless topics in various clubs over the years, including pets, esthetics, photography, baking, cooking, nutrition, sewing, how to shop inexpensively, square dancing and more – in addition to the traditional beef and poultry clubs.
“4-H is like the best kept secret ever. It shouldn’t be, but it is,” she said. “If people knew what 4-H had to offer, they’d all have their kids in it.”
If anyone should know, it’s Switzer.
The third of four children born on a farm just outside of Rockwood, Switzer first became a Wellington County 4-H member as a 12 year old in 1962.
She said the club was such a big part of her development as an adolescent and young adult that she became a leader as soon as she was old enough.
“4-H did so much for me,” she said, adding she felt then, as she does now, a strong desire to give back to young members.
“I want them to have what I had … out in the country, if you want something done for kids you just have to do it.”
And according to Barb McAllister, secretary for Wellington County 4-H, Switzer is using “experience, knowledge and enthusiasm” to do a marvelous job.
“June is just full of energy and she’s a very knowledgeable woman,”?McAllister said. “She’s a fantastic person and the kids just love her.”
Switzer even met her future husband, Craig, through 4-H. The pair has now been married for 38 years, and Craig also still serves as a 4-H leader, including for the calf and feeder clubs.
The couple lives on the farm where Craig was raised, and Switzer noted almost all of their family members – on both sides – still live in Wellington County, with most of them in?Erin and Eramosa.
“Why would you want to move out of Heaven?” Switzer asked rhetorically with a smile.
The Switzers have two children, Kris, 26, and Brooke, 22, and one granddaughter, Alyssa, the daughter of Kris and his wife, Ashley.
Not surprisingly, Kris and Brooke are both 4-H alumni. After a brief break from leading, Switzer returned in 1993 when Kris was old enough to join 4-H.
A lot has changed since Switzer herself first joined 4-H almost 50 years ago. Back then the Ministry of Agriculture was heavily involved with training, which is no longer the case, and the Wellington chapter boasted close to 1,000 members; now the total is about 230.
But that’s not due to a lack of interest, she stressed.
“We’d have double the number of kids, if we had more volunteers,” she opined.
As proof, she cites the clubs she leads, which she said have numbered upwards of 40 members when 12 to 16 is considered plenty.
“I don’t advertise mine anymore because I get as many [members] as I can handle just through word of mouth,” she said, noting the feedback she receives from the kids is “awesome.”
Currently the club has about 70 volunteer leaders, which is not nearly enough. Switzer acknowledged past members are the best source for 4-H leaders, but she also said most of them are very busy with jobs, post-secondary education or even young children of their own. She said past 4-H members from about 20 years ago are likely the best source for new leaders, but she also wants to recruit brand new ones.
One of the problems may be the misguided perception that becoming a leader involves an overwhelming commitment, Switzer suggested.
“It’s not as hard as some might imagine,” she said, adding it involves just 12 hours of instruction over six meetings, plus a special event at the end of the club.
Leaders should be at least 25 years of age, whereas members must be between 10 and 21 years old.
“4-H Ontario has challenged us to double our membership, but to do it we need more volunteers,” said Switzer. “If we build it, they will come … I want a whole new group to get exposed to what we do.”
With that in mind, Wellington County 4-H is hosting workshops for leaders on March 27 at the Alma community hall from 9am to 3pm and on April 6 at Gencor in Guelph at 8pm. For more information or to register contact McAllister at 519-824-2959 or call 1-800-569-0809.
When she’s not leading 4-H groups or campaigning for more members and volunteers, Switzer likes to paint, ride horses, garden and sew.
And she still somehow finds time for other ventures, including teaching Sunday school at Mimosa United Church, working part time with the local Dairy Farmers of Ontario organization and helping out with the Upper Grand District?School Board’s technical skills workshop and the “Pizza Perfect” event – an agriculture education program directed at local grade 3 students – hosted this week by the Grand River Agricultural Society.
And, she proudly adds, she is a “life member” of the Erin?Agricultural Society. Each year she can be seen at the Erin Fall Fair doing “a little bit of everything,” and she is the author of the fair’s history which, she pointed out, needs an update this year for the 160th annual fair.
After 35 years of teaching, it’s the type of thing that comes natural to Switzer, who noted being a 4-H leader is how she now gets her “kid fix.” When asked how long she plans to keep at it, she smiles.
“Until I’m tired of it … probably a while yet,” she said. “I love being with the kids.”
For more information about 4-H, to become member or leader or to find a list of county directors visit wellington4-h.ca or call 519-824-2959 or 1-800-569-0809.