Jana Schwartz grew up participating in 4-H, but she didn’t expect it to become her career.

Originally, her heart was set on becoming a veterinarian but she just didn’t do well learning in a traditional classroom setting.

“I’m someone who learns by doing,” Schwartz said.

A veterinarian told Schwartz about an extension educator who was looking for an intern in Dawes County. That internship has developed into a 17-year career as a 4-H extension assistant at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center.

While most people think of the club setting when they think of 4-H, the program stretches far beyond that through camps and partnerships with schools and libraries. Right now, 1 of every 2 children is impacted by 4-H in one way or another.

Additionally, 4-H has developed into more than just the traditional agriculture based project areas, although those are still a staple. For example, a robotics club meets regularly and an animation club is in the works.

“There is something for anyone,” Schwartz said, calling 4-H customizable.

During her time as a 4-H participant, Schwartz explored several project areas including human development, cooking, breeding beef and sewing.

“I did a lot of sewing, but it wasn’t really my thing,” Schwartz said.

She is grateful that 4-H gave her an opportunity to try new things and find the ones she was passionate about. That element is still one of her favorite things about the program.

“We give kids a safe place to fail,” Schwartz said, adding that the program is full of caring adults who want to help children learn from failure and succeed. “Those failures are just as important as success. We teach them that they can move on and still shine.”

Adults involved in the program also help 4-H practice the “BIG M,” which stands for Belonging, Independence, Generosity and Mastery. Schwartz explained that 4-H can give kids a sense of belonging, not only because of their peers but because they’ve got adults who they can look to in addition to their parents. She encourages adults to volunteer by contacting the extension office.

“They volunteer because they have as much fun as the kids do,” Schwartz said.

Another element of 4-H that Schwartz is fond of is the opportunity it gives parents to spend time with their children. Her 13-year-old son is part of the swine program this year and Schwartz has enjoyed spending time with him while he preps his pig for the fair.

“I’m getting to know him in a different way,” Schwartz said.

On Thursday, Schwartz was in the Marker Hub at the Lied Scottsbluff Public Library. A lazer cutting machine buzzed next to her. Inside, was a piece of wood that had several squares etched into it.

“I’m trying to make a box,” Schwartz said.

She’s in the MakerHub nearly every week, as part of the extension center’s partnership with the library. She said she’s constantly trying to learn new skills that she can pass on to her 4-Hers, whether its making a box or a more intricate project.

“Someone might think I’m playing with Legos, but really, I’m building a robot so I can help the students build robots,” Schwartz said.

Aside from learning how to build a robot, kids are also learning life skills that will help them long after they’ve outgrown the 4-H program, including responsibility, critical thinking and public speaking.

“When I was in 4-H, I did a lot of speeches and presentations,” Schwartz said. “I’m naturally a pretty shy individual, so that was painful but I’m so appreciative that my mother forced me to do that.”

Knowing how to make a presentation has been a vital part of her job.

In addition to traditional life skills, by embracing cutting-edge technology, 4-H is also preparing children for jobs that might not exist yet, Schwartz said.

She’s learned a lot from the program as an adult, including being more conscious of other people’s struggles.

“You never know what people may be going through,” Schwartz said. “A kid might be acting out in a group and it doesn’t have anything to do with the group. How can we give them support?”

Building kids up and seeing them grow is what Schwartz loves most about being an extension assistant.

“Seeing that kid who can’t find their place anywhere find it in 4-H and seeing that confidence grow keeps me going,” Schwartz said.

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Kamie Stephen is a reporter with the Star-Herald. She can be reached at 308-632-9041 or via email at kamie.stephen@starherald.com.

Kamie Stephen is a reporter with the Star-Herald. She can be reached at 308-632-9041 or via email at kamie.stephen@starherald.com.

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