Jackson County 4-H’ers attend teen summit in Washington, D.C.

A group of seven Jackson County 4-H’ers and three adult chaperones recently attended Ignite by 4-H, a teen summit held in Washington, D.C.

The event included four days of panels, speakers, hands-on workshop sessions, entertainment and opportunities for building connections with teens from across the country.

During the summit, 4-H members — ages 14 to 19 — explored topics and career pathways related to STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — agriscience, healthy living, career readiness and emotional well-being.

According to 4-h.org, the event hosted 600 youth from 42 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

This year’s summit featured U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy and other national leaders.

Heather VonDielingen, county extension director and 4-H youth development educator for Purdue Extension Jackson County and interim statewide Juntos 4-H coordinator, said this was the first year for Ignite by 4-H, but in the past, there were separate summits for healthy living, agriscience and STEM.

“We have sent youth to the Healthy Living Summit and STEM Summit in the past, and any 4-H member can attend Ignite by 4-H,” she said. “We had an application process for Juntos 4-H youth and Working for Our Dreams youth to attend, as we had funding to send seven youth to the summit.”

Juntos 4-H youth and chaperones who attended Ignite by 4-H were funded by the United States Department of Agriculture/National Institute for Food and Agriculture, Children, Youth and Families at Risk Grant, VonDielingen said.

“This grant supports Juntos 4-H in Jackson, Lake and Marion counties. Youth from the Working for Our Dreams 4-H Club were able to attend through funding provided by National 4-H Council,” she said. “In January, I applied for the Ignite Grant from National 4-H Council to be able to bring rural minority youth on the trip to Washington, D.C.”

4‑H is America’s largest youth development organization, empowering nearly 6 million young people with the skills to lead for a lifetime.

Molly Marshall, health and human sciences educator for Purdue Extension Jackson County, was one of the chaperones who accompanied local 4-H members on the trip. Richard Beckort and Iveth Vasquez were the other two chaperones.

“We had seven students from Jackson County attend the conference. Three of them are freshmen and four are sophomores who all attend Seymour High School,” Marshall said. “There were also 4-H’ers from a couple of other counties in Indiana that attended.”

She said prior to leaving for the trip, each student had to select a tract in which they were interested. The areas to choose from were agriscience, healthy living and STEM.

“We had four students select healthy living, two chose STEM and one went with agriscience,” Marshall said. “At the conference, the students were able to attend workshop sessions based on the subject areas they were interested in.”

During the conference, they met as a group, both as a county and a state, and discussed the different sessions they attended and talked about ways to use the tools and resources they were learning as a way to address a “wicked problem” in our communities, she said.

“They learned different ways to think about and how to ignite positive change in communities,” Marshall said. “It could be a school-, community- or countywide problem to address.”

She said it was interesting to listen to what the students identified as wicked issues they see in our rural community, and they had discussions around food insecurity, drugs and vaping, peer pressure, mentoring, stress and mental health.

“It didn’t take long for the topic of mental health and substance use prevention to rise to the top of their priority list,” she said. “The students were very passionate about wanting to get involved with mental health and prevention efforts in their school. They also mentioned an interest in mentoring younger students to encourage good decision-making skills in our middle school youth.”

Marshall said as she was listening to them brainstorm ideas, it occurred to her that Hope Squad may be a good group with which to connect the students.

“Hope Squad has been established for a few years at SHS, and I was involved with the ALIVE Suicide Prevention coalition with Mental Health America of Jackson County to bring Hope Squad to SHS,” she said. “During the conference, I reached out to Celeste Bowman, who is the JAG specialist and Hope Squad adviser at SHS.”

Marshall shared with Bowman about the Ignite conference and what the 4-H students were learning about and their interest in mental health efforts at school to reach their peers.

“The students had heard of Hope Squad but were not very familiar with their work,” she said. “So when we returned from D.C., we set up a meeting during the school day with Celeste and the seven students that attended the conference so they could meet each other and learn about Hope Squad and if they would want to be involved and if it fit with what they had been discussing at the Ignite conference.”

Marshall said it was a great first meeting, and the students decided to join the Hope Squad efforts and help spread the word to students about mental health and prevention.

“With much of the focus on mental health during the conference, Iveth Vasquez mentioned Karla Guerrero’s name during our trip,” she said. “Karla works for Su Casa as the youth engagement coordinator as well as a teacher at SHS.”

Vasquez and Guerrero had been working together to bring some mental health programming to the Working for Our Dreams 4-H Club that Vasquez is the leader of and had three members from the club attend the Ignite conference.

“I contacted Karla to see what kind of mental health programming she offered and learned she was also a teacher at SHS, so I introduced Celeste and Karla to see if Karla had any interest in getting involved with Hope Squad,” Marshall said. “They were able to connect, and now, Karla is getting trained to be a Hope Squad adviser with Celeste.”

Having Guerrero and the Ignite conference 4-H’ers involved in Hope Squad will hopefully enable them to increase access to the Hispanic students in school to assist with any language barriers or stigma that may exist, Marshall said.

Besides attending the summit, the group did some sightseeing. One evening, they took a night bus tour of the national monuments and walked around the Jefferson Memorial, World War II Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

“We also took the students to eat at Old Ebbitt Grill, which Richard Beckort planned it for us, and this meal took place before we left for the airport to come home,” Marshall said. “After being with the teens for four days and watching so much cellphone use, we declared it was a technology-free meal, so all cellphones were put away for the duration of the meal.”

Marshall said the summit was a fantastic opportunity for not only the students but the adults who attended, and they got to connect with other students and extension staff members from Indiana and from across the country.

“It was all a great learning experience for them, and it was a really fun and enjoyable trip,” she said. “I feel blessed I was able to attend.”