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4H more than just a dog-and-pony show

4H’er Mikayla Osmer and her cat, Frodo, prepare for a judging competition at Saturday’s 4H cat show at the Presidents Hall at Kitsap County Fairgrounds. - Photo by Paul Balcerak
4H’er Mikayla Osmer and her cat, Frodo, prepare for a judging competition at Saturday’s 4H cat show at the Presidents Hall at Kitsap County Fairgrounds.
— image credit: Photo by Paul Balcerak

By PAUL BALCERAK

Staff writer

James Courtright’s cat, Raven, must be one of the most mild-mannered cats in existence. While James silently hunched over, pulling up Raven’s gums and brushing his teeth, the small black house cat didn’t squirm and didn’t make a peep. It’s enough to make you think James has been doing this kind of thing for years.

Nope.

“This is my first cat show,” he says, as he clicks a skinny green collar on Raven and walks him to be judged at Saturday’s 4H cat show at the Kitsap County Fairgrounds.

It may sound simple, but James and other kids from around Kitsap County and the state spend the better part of each year preparing for shows like Saturday’s. Animals, computer and machinery projects and others are meticulously cared for as kids aim to become the best in their competitive fields and hope to take their pets, or projects, to the Washington State Fair in September.

But that’s not all 4H is about.

“4H just helps children develop,” said Andi Lanxon, a judge at Saturday’s show who drove all the way from Kent so the event could be official. “They really, honestly, truly learn a lot in 4H.”

Lanxon has been involved with 4H off and on for more than 50 years, she estimates, and she’s experienced nearly every facet of it. She participated in 4H as a child, coached her daughters through it as a mother and now serves as a judge.

“I always come back to 4H; I’d do anything for these kids,” she said.

The organization, which stands for head, heart, hands and health, began to operate during the late 1800s, according to 4H’s national Web site. It’s purpose was to teach kids innovative techniques associated with homemaking and farm working. Today, the group operates in about 80 countries and boasts about 7 million members in the United States alone.

Ask any parent or child at Saturday’s event, however, and they’d say that 4H is a simple organization that teaches kids the things that traditional schooling can’t, or doesn’t have time for.

“That is 4H’s function — life skills,” 4H leader Toni Blanchard said.

They came in handy for Blanchard’s daughter, Heather, who recently used the public speaking skills she learned as a part of 4H to score a job at the Disney Store in Kitsap Mall.

“If I wasn’t in 4H, I wouldn’t have learned to be good at public speaking (which helped during the job interview),” Heather said. “I was like, ‘don’t talk too fast.’”

At 16, Heather is something of a rare find in 4H. While the group doesn’t discriminate based on age, most kids drop out on their own once they become teenagers.

“Probably most teenagers get involved with ASB and sports and stuff and don’t have time (for 4H),” Heather theorized.

Perception might have something to do with it, too. For a lot of people, 4H represents throwback to a more agrarian culture. And even its members admit that the group is inherited, to a certain extent.

“If you’re in it or your family’s in it, it kind of trickles down to the generations,” Blanchard said.

The organization boasts several famous alumni, however, and they’re not all good-ol’ boys and girls. Faith Hill, Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis, Al Gore and many more are all former 4H’ers.

The organization deals in much more than dogs, cats and ponies. During the last several years, the group has branched out to feature programs that focus on things like computers and auto mechanics.

“Basically, we can do anything in 4H, as long as we have (qualified) adult leadership,” said Laurie Hampton, leader of the visiting Jefferson County Paws-N-Claws club.

That doesn’t mean 4H is in trouble. They tend to lose members as the years go on, but they pick up new ones, too, and membership has pretty much stayed static over the years, Blanchard said.

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