Juntos wraps up first year in Jackson County, new 4-H club formed

While the first year of Juntos 4-H in Jackson County was cut in half, the 17 Seymour Middle School students still felt the full benefits.

The program had its first family night in January, and a new after-school 4-H club started in March.

Then June 24, 11 of the students participated in the Purdue University Agribusiness Science Academy middle school summer institute, which is organized by the West Lafayette-based university’s College of Agriculture Office of Multicultural Programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic not only pushed back the start of Juntos, it resulted in the weeklong summer institute being canceled at Purdue campuses and only being offered on one day at one location, Immanuel Lutheran School in Seymour.

Some of the county’s 34 4-H clubs took a break over the winter when COVID-19 cases were spiking, but Heather VonDielingen, Jackson County 4-H youth development educator, said many have been meeting and conducting in-person events in recent months.

"It’s just exciting because kids who haven’t seen each other for an entire year, they are just excited to get back with each other. Like myself, I’m a Purdue employee and have not been on campus since February 2020," she said.

"It has just been nice to reconnect with colleagues and for the kids to reconnect with each other, as well," she said. "We made virtual work for a year, but it’s so much better when you can be in person and hands-on and you can actually touch the things that you’re learning about."

In spring of 2019, VonDielingen attended training for Juntos 4-H in Florida, and in late May 2020, Indiana 4-H/Purdue University received a $500,000 federal grant to start the program in three Indiana counties, one being Jackson County.

The program allows local Latino students and their families to gain knowledge and resources needed for their academic success now and in the future.

It’s designed to promote family engagement, improve the sense of belonging among Latino students and families in their schools and communities, increase student success by improving attendance, grades and high school graduation rates and raise the percentage of Latino students pursuing college.

Schools play a role in recommending students who would most benefit from the program. For Seymour Community School Corp., Latinos make up more than 35% of the student population.

Juntos 4-H was supposed to start in the fall of 2020 at SMS, but pandemic restrictions pushed that back.

Still, the students started a new 4-H club, Achievers, attended club meetings and family nights, met with mentors and set goals for their academics.

Jairo Pena served as club president and said he was able to become a good leader, help others and keep things in order.

When he found out about the summer institute capstone project a few weeks ago, Pena said he knew he wanted to be involved.

"I figured I would be good at it, fit in with everyone," he said.

Hearing from and interacting with Purdue employees in the areas of agronomy, entomology, forestry and natural resources, agricultural economics and agricultural sciences education and communication, Pena and his 10 fellow Juntos 4-H members were able to explore various career opportunities.

"They are all learning new things to see what they like and what they would be into," Pena said, noting he was most interested in forestry and natural resources since he likes to be outside. "I did learn a lot of new stuff that I did not know before."

VonDielingen said the opportunity became available through Zachary Brown, assistant director for student recruitment and retention for the Office of Multicultural Programs, working with Xiomara Diaz, Indiana 4-H state specialist for new audience initiatives.

Brown said in a typical year, students from around the state would come together at the various Purdue campuses for the summer institute, where they experience college classes, talk to college students and participate in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities and leadership training.

COVID prevented that from happening, but Brown and Diaz were able to come up with an alternative and still make an impact.

"Essentially, the program is all about getting that agricultural interest to eighth-graders, seventh-graders early on so that we can get them thinking about going into the College of Ag in the next five, six years," Brown said. "Some of these students we may not see for a while, but we want to get the idea in their mind that ‘Hey, agriculture is an option and it’s not just farming.’"

Diaz said the institute was a good culmination to the students’ first year in Juntos 4-H.

"The first piece of the program that we want them to take away is that they have the opportunity to identify the things that make them feel happy and passionate about the opportunities that will happen after high school but also to embrace that piece of being responsible and setting goals in terms of what they need to do to get to that goal," she said.

They also want to ensure the students know what’s expected of them and have the knowledge to identify their talents or passions and make decisions, she said.

"Through these experiences, they can start seeing things that they never thought about and also how to apply the lessons learned to make sure that they can take them and motivate them to have better grades, maybe to pursue engagements in other school activities or take leadership in their community," Diaz said.

Many of the students are first-generation 4-H’ers, and Diaz said she hopes they will continue staying involved in the organization until they graduate from high school. Then they could become volunteers and continue working with youth involved in the program.

When the new school year begins in August, Juntos 4-H will have its second cohort in Jackson County and also start in Lake, Marion and Dubois counties.

The grant funding is for four years, but Diaz said if the communities embrace the program, additional funding can be sought to continue to bring meaningful experiences for students and their families.

VonDielingen said Jackson County 4-H will announce information about a kickoff night when it’s set, and that will give youth an opportunity to enroll in the program, including Juntos.

"Juntos is geared toward Latino youth, but anybody can join the after-school 4-H club named The Achievers 4-H Club," she said. "We’ll add another cohort of eighth-graders in the fall so we keep building off of each other."

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The Juntos 4-H program works to support academic success and encourage families to work together to gain access to higher education. It’s geared toward Latino youth.

Families interested in enrolling in the program can contact Heather VonDielingen with Purdue Extension Jackson County at 812-358-6101 or [email protected] or Principal Daniel Mendez at Seymour Middle School at 812-522-5453 or [email protected].

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