WASHINGTON – When educator Andrew Behnke was growing up in Plano, Texas, he didn’t even know what 4-H was. He now leads the Juntos para una Mejor Educación (Together for a Better Education) 4-H program of North Carolina State University, which helps Latino and other minority youth stay in school and away from gangs.
“I was inspired to do something. We need to be more effective, especially with Latino youth, half of which are attracted to gangs,” Behnke said. “For some youth who have been attracted to gangs, the gangs have become their family. We try to bring the (real) family back into ‘family.’” In the process, he added, 4-H chapters become tightknit groups held together by members’ successes.
4-H, which stands for head, heart, hands and health, was established in the late 1800s to provide hands-on learning and make public school education more connected to country life. It has grown to become the United States’ largest youth development organization, with the idea of helping young people and their families gain the skills they need to be active contributors to their communities and develop innovative ideas for the economy. While it originally attracted mostly rural youth, in recent decades chapters have grown up in suburban and urban areas.
North Carolina has had rapid growth in its Latino population, with Latino families living in cities, suburbs and rural communities, Behnke said. Since he co-founded Juntos in 2007 with just a few 6th- to 12th-grade students in Raleigh, the group has grown to about 600 youth participating in its 4-H chapters in North Carolina, Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon and Nevada.
Juntos works to unify schools and communities. It does that by providing minority boys and girls and their families with educational workshops, mentors, success coaching and after-school 4-H club activities. Those include cultural events such as trips to museums and plays, sporting matches, community fairs, and group family nights. For some youth, it is the first time they have had such an experience. College students and older teens who have gone through the program serve as mentors.
Through 4-H chapters, Juntos also works to get members into college and to obtain scholarships. Getting them to go on to graduate school is the final goal, Behnke said.
4-H members do better in school than many of their peers, are twice as likely to go on to college, and engage in fewer dangerous or criminal activities, Behnke said. Juntos encourages its members to speak at school assemblies about what they learned through 4-H and to write about their experiences.