Strengthening Families Through Military 4-H Partnerships

Debra A. Jones
Extension Specialist, Volunteer Development
Utah State University Extension
4900 Old Main Hill, Logan UT 84322
Phone: 435-797-2202    Fax:  435-797-3268

Joanne Roueche
Family & Consumer Sciences, Davis County Extension
Utah State University Extension
P.O. Box 618
Farmington, UT 84025
Phone: 801-451-3404   Fax: 801-451-3572


Extension, 4-H, and the military have been partners since World War I.  Through the recent decade, the U.S. Army, Air Force, and 4-H have partnered to provide positive youth development on military installations involving over 7,000 youth in 4-H clubs in the U.S. and abroad.  In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, a new initiative extends this same support to military youth and families who are not affiliated with military installations, but who are dispersed in rural, urban, and suburban communities across the nation through the National Guard and Reserve.  All youth involved through military outreach are enrolled as 4-H members through their  respective counties.  As the program becomes more widely known, counties integrate these youth in local, state, regional, and national 4-H activities and events.  Authors share their experience developing relationships, implementing positive youth development programs, and explain how these successful actions resulted in funding sources for increased outreach.

Keywords: Military, 4-H, youth, Air Force, Army, National Guard, Army Reserve, deployment


The partnership between Cooperative Extension and the military dates back to at least World War I.  At this time, Congress appropriated substantial sums which were being used by Extension to increase food production from America’s farmers.  The war brought about labor shortages, and 4-H club work in rural areas became a way to increase production.  At the beginning of World War I, 4-H club membership was 169,000.  By 1918, the year after the U.S. entered the war, membership reached 500,000 (Reck 1951).

World War II brought new and different challenges to 4-H and to our nation.  The week of April 5-11, 1942, was declared National Mobilization Week for farm youth.  In his message to kick off the week, President Roosevelt said, “Let your head, heart, hands, and health truly be dedicated to your country, which needs them now as never before.”   The Extension Service began a 4-H campaign to “Feed a Fighter.”  Charts and tables were created to illustrate how much commodity would need to be produced to feed a soldier for one year (i.e., 500 broilers,  829 pints of canned food, 2,500 quarts of milk).  During the war, 4-H youth preserved enough food to care for a million fighting men for 3 years (Reck 1951).

As the history of our nation evolves, the partnership between Extension and the military endures and strengthens to meet the ever-changing needs of society.  In 1995, a formal agreement was formed among National 4-H Headquarters, the U.S. Army Child and Youth Services, and the U.S. Air Force Family Members Program to provide 4-H on military installations around the world.  More recently, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the initiative provides the same support to military youth of National Guard and Reserve families who are dispersed in rural, urban, and suburban communities across the nation.  Nationally, the military 4-H partnership has established 450 4-H clubs, involving 12,000 youth and 900 Army staff at 95 installations worldwide (Military 4-H Programs 2006).

A key component in both Army and Air Force installation programs is the offering of specific

4-H project areas.  As families relocate to Air Force bases and Army posts around the world, they will find consistency in the programs offered at the Youth Centers.  Although a wider variety of programs is encouraged, four specific project areas are offered at all installations: Fine Arts (visual arts and theater arts); Photography; Technology; and Citizenship (community service).  These projects may be delivered via one community club or four project clubs located on military installations and in off-post, off-base housing areas.

Operation: Military Kids

When National Guard, Army Reserve, and other military parents living in civilian communities are mobilized, their children suddenly become different. Now they are “military kids,” but they still look the same to teachers, friends, and the rest of the community (Operation: Military Kids 2005).  Operation: Military Kids (OMK) was initiated in January 2004.  Targeting 20 states with the highest rates of deployment, another 15 states have been added, along with other states that may not have exceedingly high rates of deployment, but have sufficient numbers of Guard and Reserve families experiencing deployment issues.  Grants provided through USDA, Army, and Air Force enable Extension and our military partners to not only provide positive youth development and support to families, but also to educate the public on the impact of war and deployment on the youth and families of deployed soldiers in their communities (Operation: Military Kids 2005).

The deployment cycle disrupts families before, during, and after deployment.  Military families are currently experiencing emotional trauma and issues of deployment at unprecedented levels (Pincus et al. 2004).  Issues of deployment and family separations have become dominant aspects of military service (National Council on Family Relations 2004).  The National Council on Family Relations recommends an increase in prevention and outreach programs to promote resilient military families.  Many families affected by deployment include young, newly married couples with infants and young children, those with limited financial resources, and single parent families.  The study indicates these families often lack a connection with extended family, friends, and neighbors.  There is a need for military 4-H partnerships to connect these families to social networks and provide them with basic support services as they cope with deployment.

Deployment issues identified for Guard/Reserve families include: separation/anxiety of having a parent deployed; geographically dispersed families with lack of connection to others in similar situations; changes in financial situation; increased responsibilities for youth at home which decreases the amount of time for out-of-school activities; behavioral changes and stress; and maintaining communication with the deployed parent who is not available for significant family events.  In addition to addressing needs of youth, there are opportunities to work with the remaining parent to handle new financial situations, increased stress of acting as a single parent, basic home repairs, and other related areas.

Highlights/Opportunities of the Military 4-H Program

Deployment rates are at record high levels as 4-H continues its partnership with Army, Air Force, National Guard, and Army Reserve.  Through military 4-H grants over the last 3 years, Extension in Utah has increased its outreach to military families from 3 clubs and 18 youth, to 16 clubs and 428 youth, with 124 youth in Army families; 190 in Air Force; and 114 in National Guard (Jones et al. 2006).

The relationship began with the initiation of a Wonderful Outdoor World (WOW) Camp at Hill Air Force Base.  The invitation to the Base was made as a response to one of the author’s personal experience of having a son deployed to Iraq.  As expressed by the director of youth programs at the Base, “The relationship has grown into a steadfast and solid partnership which Hill Air Force Base Youth Programs have grown to admire and respect.”  The relationship continues to build.  Recognizing the complementary aspects of Boys and Girls Clubs and 4-H, which are both housed on base, we developed effective community service opportunities for youth to make a difference.  Through combined resources of Boys and Girls Clubs, 4-H, and the Base, we were able to provide community service projects ranging from intergenerational activities with seniors and the very young, visits to the Veterans’ Hospital, assisted living facilities, and providing Christmas for families in low income housing.  A key aspect of these projects was that they were not conducted solely on the Base, but involved the youth in their community.

A highlight for 4-H has been the relationship developed with the Air Force Base, and their investment of funding to support hiring four 4-H interns for the Base summer day camp.  It was through the sustained nurturing of this partnership that the 4-H internship program was created.  This is the third year of providing 4-H staff and a weekly 4-H club meeting and service projects with over 150 youth involved in the summer day camp program.  A weekly 4-H club is also conducted during the school year in the afterschool setting of the youth center.   Youth enrolled through military 4-H become 4-H members and are encouraged to participate in a variety of 4-H projects, activities, and events.  A special exhibit area is provided within the 4-H area of the county fair for military youth to display their projects.  This adds recognition for the youth, and visibility and a positive impact on community relations between the Base and the community.  Scholarships are available through the military 4-H grant for youth to attend local, state, regional, and national 4-H activities and events.

4-H and Army personnel at the Army installation involve youth in afterschool clubs two days per week and special activities such as Jr. Master Gardening at the installation’s youth center garden.  Installation youth represent the state in a variety of events including the technology conference, teen leadership retreat, National Life Rocks training, regional Health Rocks training, and one youth serving on the National 4-H Conference planning team.

National Guard Kids and 4-H  

A 2- year partnership with National Guard and Reserve, has involved over 114 youth and their families in a variety of programs. The activities provide an opportunity for youth to be with other youth experiencing the same feelings and issues associated with a deployed parent, and give them an opportunity to take a break and enjoy being a kid.  Youth and families of deployed soldiers have participated in activities to learn about elk and their habitat; figure skating clinics; golf clinics; a trip to the aquarium; the Great Utah Road Tour, where youth experience a road trip with other youth to become more familiar with their state; and of course with the Greatest Snow on Earth, ski adventures.  Ongoing youth leadership is provided by participation in National Guard Family Programs Conferences with associated youth symposiums, youth camps, and teen council.  In the spirit of the new multi-component family support concept, activities are promoted as Guard/Reserve rather than separate activities for each branch.  Just as military families are able to visit any Guard/Reserve installation for assistance with deployment issues at any branch, they are also able to become involved with 4-H through any of these venues.

Hero Packs is a national community service project designed to thank youth of  deployed parents for the sacrifices their families are making. Within our state partnership, over 175 youth have teamed with volunteers in local community organizations to assemble over 550 Hero Packs in the last 2 years.  Each Hero Pack includes a 4-H backpack containing a camera, a photo album, stationery, piggy bank, pen, a 4-H Liberty Teddy Bear, and other items.  Handwritten letters to the youth and soldiers expressing appreciation are a key component of the packs.  Putting the packs together, especially writing the letters, has done much to develop an awareness and appreciation of the impact upon, and sacrifices made by families with a parent deployed.

Operation Purple Camp

Purple Camp is available to youth of personnel from all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces at no cost to campers, courtesy of grants from the National Military Families Association and Sears, Roebuck and Company.  Camps last from 5 to 7 days, and focus on helping youth deal with deployment-related issues.  Youth enjoy a safe, fun environment in which to process their feelings with others in similar situations.  Leonhard and Ferrari (2006) suggest the greatest benefit of Purple Camp is for youth to meet others in their same situation and to realize they are not alone.  There are over 18 camps held across the nation each year.  Youth may locate the camp closest to them by visiting the National Military Family Association Web site at   Hill Air Force Base hosted a Purple Camp in the summer of 2005, with 4-H interns joining the staff as camp counselors.  The personal experience of deployment was felt by one of the 4-H interns.  She and her family expressed the impact her participation with the youth involved in Purple Camp made on them.

A qualitative study of 107 adolescents, age 12-18, attending Purple Camps suggests that youth take on additional responsibilities when a parent is deployed, thus providing less time to participate in out of school activities (Huebner and Mancini 2005).  These youth expressed a need to find a balance between talking about their new situation and wanting to be distracted from thinking about it.  They indicated an appreciation for camps and activities that gave them an opportunity to get away and be with others, enabling them to have fun without focusing specifically on deployment issues they were experiencing.

Summary and Implications for Extension

A study conducted by Ferrari and Lauxman (2005) indicated that the biggest challenges to the military 4-H partnership are making and maintaining contacts due to staff turnover, time constraints in already busy programs, learning military culture, and defining clear expectations of all partners.  The greatest benefits are providing new opportunities to youth and families who were not previously being served by Extension, increased visibility for Extension, funding to implement the programs, and a feeling of making a difference.

Huebner and Mancini’s (2005) study reflected implications which encompass basic components offered through Cooperative Extension: the importance of involving youth and families in social support networks, and opportunities for involvement in activities and events; the importance of doing things together as a family as relationships are adjusted to deployment; exploring ways of  documenting events and rituals the deployed parent is missing; and encouraging youth and adults to gain life skills in areas of stress management, home arts, budgeting, and basic home, car and lawn maintenance, which helps them be successful as they take on new responsibilities at home.

Through our military partnership, Extension has the opportunity to not only reach out and involve youth in positive activities as they experience the stress of deployment, but to expand into adult education with the spouse and family members of a deployed soldier. Dialogue is currently underway with Air Force Base and National Guard partners to determine the best ways to deliver programs in the identified areas of budgeting and finance, basic home repairs, and stress management.  National Guard and Reserve partners call upon us as deployment numbers grow each year impacting families and communities in some areas of the state more than others.  Theresa Ferrari (2005) eloquently sums up thoughts that are shared by many of us within the network of Military 4-H Liaisons across the nation.  As we see more and more families affected by deployment, many of whom are called to serve more than once, it is becoming more the norm rather than an infrequent occurrence.  We need to expand and strengthen Extension’s role as conveners of community collaborations in order to make Extension 4-H youth programs more accessible to those who need us.   As we support military families through collaborations with Family Support Centers, Family Assistance Centers, other youth organizations, American Legions, local businesses, and others, communities grow and come together.




Ferrari, T., and L. Lauxman.  2005.  What we have learned from joining forces with the military: Challenges, lessons learned, and creative solutions.  Presentation at Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR) Conference, May 26, Boston, MA.

Ferrarri, T.  (2005).  Extension’s response to an un-natural disaster: Enlisting your support for military youth and families.  Journal of Extension, 43(4), available on-line at

Huebner, A., & J. Mancini.  2005.  Adjustment among adolescents in military families when a parent is deployed:  A final report submitted to the Military Family Research Institute and the Department of Defense Quality of Life Office.  Falls Church, VA:  Virginia Tech, Department of Human Development.

Jones, D., J. Smith,  J. Roueche, J. Christian, B. Nielsen & L. Thornton  2006.  Strengthening families through 4-H military partnerships.  Presentation at Children, Youth and Families at Risk (CYFAR) Conference, May 17, Atlanta, GA.

Military 4-H Programs.  2006.  Extension/4-H Support for Military Youth and Family Programs.  Retrieved June 17, 2006 at

National Council on Family Relations.  2004, April.  Building strong communities for military families.  NCFR Policy Brief.  Strengthening families: Bridging research, practice, and policy.  Minneapolis, MN.

Operation: Military Kids.  2005.  Partners for Youth, 4-H/Army Youth Development Project.  Retrieved June 17, 2006, at

Pincus, S., R. House, J. Christenson, and L. Adler.  2004.  The emotional cycle of deployment: A military family perspective.  Retrieved June, 19, 2006, at

Reck, F.  1951. The 4-H Story: A History of 4-H Work. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State College Press.

Cite this article

.Jones Debra A, and Joanne Roueche,. 2007. Strengthening Families Through Military 4-H Partnerships.  The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues, 12 (2).




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