Clubs capture attention of youth with focus on out-of-the-box interests


Volunteer firefighters aren’t paid for the services they provide to their community. Really? No way!

The No. 1 job of a sheriff’s department officer is the safety, security and functions of the county jail. I had no idea.

Emergency medical technicians work 24-hour shifts and rotate working holidays. Wow! How do they do that?

Local youth who recently attended the final session of the Fire Safety SPARK Club were in awe of these facts.

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After learning how to develop a fire exit strategy plan, identify common fire hazards and different types of fires and practice extinguishing fires, the organizer of the club thought it would be good to introduce the children to various emergency services.

Donald Schnitker, chief of the Hamilton Township Volunteer Fire Department, said the youth learned a lot, and he even learned a few things, too.

“My goal was to let them have a taste of what’s all out there,” he said. “Maybe it would spark an interest in whether somebody wants to pursue a career in the medical field or law enforcement or fire. I just thought it was a good thing to get the kids involved in something and teach them something on their level.”

This was the fourth SPARK club offered through Jackson County 4-H since May 2016. The others were origami, bicentennial and science.

The state 4-H office started SPARK clubs in the fall of 2015 to allow youth to express their interests and encourage them to sign up for 4-H. The clubs are intended to capture the attention of youth with a single focus of out-of-the-box interests.

Clubs are free to all Jackson County 4-H members who have paid their program fee for the year. Any child in Grades 3 through 12 not enrolled in 4-H and wanting to start a SPARK club needs to pay $20 to become a 4-H member and find an adult volunteer to lead the group. The adult has to go through an approval process.

Six hours of contact time is required, and that can be done all at once or spread out, allowing flexibility for youth and adult volunteers.

SPARK club members are able to introduce their topic or skill to whichever 4-H club they join.

Heather VonDielingen, Jackson County 4-H youth development educator, said the SPARK clubs have resulted in a few new 4-H members.

Last year’s 4-H membership was at 776. Enrollment for this year is underway, and VonDielingen said more than 700 have signed up.

“SPARK clubs are meant to kind of spark an interest, to expose the kids to different occupations in the community, different interests, and just to get them out there,” VonDielingen said.

The Fire Safety SPARK Club came about when Schnitker stopped by VonDielingen’s office one day last year and asked her what she was working on. That was around the time SPARK clubs were being introduced in the county.

Two hours later, he came back to her office with a plan for the club.

It originally was planned for last summer, but not enough kids signed up, so it was rescheduled to this month.

The first session involved youth learning how a fire extinguisher works and using one to put a small fire out.

“I was so impressed,” Schnitker said. “I thought there would be some kids who would be afraid of it and wouldn’t want to do it. Every one of them walked up to that and put it out.”

During the second meeting, the kids were inside the fire station in Cortland creating a fire escape plan for their families, learning helpful hints to prevent a house fire and realizing the importance of working smoke detectors in the home. They also placed a 911 call to the county dispatch center.

“We found one student who didn’t have any working smoke detectors in their house,” Schnitker said.

The final session had several guests, including Brittney Findley and Lori Hatfield, emergency medical technicians with Jackson County Emergency Medical Services; Rob Henley and Jesse Hutchinson, officers with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department; and Scott Thompson and Brian Acton, assistant chief and firefighter, respectively, with the Hamilton Township Volunteer Fire Department.

Youth heard all about those people’s jobs and the required education and training, checked out their vehicles and learned about the variety of equipment and supplies they use.

Bradley Dyer, 10, of Brownstown said he liked learning about police equipment the most.

In terms of fire safety, he said he learned it’s important to have a plan to escape a house fire.

He said the club was beneficial to all of the attendees.

“So they can enhance fire safety and allow future generations to know more about that kind of stuff so that people will be more careful,” he said.

VonDielingen said she received positive feedback from parents about the SPARK club. One parent said they checked their smoke detectors at home after one session, and another parent said their child quizzed family members about the different types of fires while they sat at the dinner table.

“They didn’t know a lot coming in, and I think they learned so much,” she said.

VonDielingen said she has received several ideas for future SPARK clubs, and she’s open to hearing more.

“Any off-the-wall topic,” she said. “It doesn’t have to relate to a fair project. 4-H is all about teaching life skills, which is what this SPARK club has done.”

Schnitker said he would like to do the Fire Safety SPARK Club again next spring.

“I’ve enjoyed doing it, and I’ll do it again,” he said.

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For information about Jackson County 4-H or SPARK clubs, call Purdue Extension Jackson County at 812-358-6101 or email Heather VonDielingen at [email protected].


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