Writer: D'Lyn Ford
ALBUQUERQUE - As 4-H celebrates its national centennial, New Mexico's 4-H program is broadening its efforts to reach at-risk youth in communities where drugs, gang activity and other risky behavior is particularly widespread.
A $1 million U.S. Justice Department grant has provided New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service with enough funds to hire six new 4-H agents for a three-year period. The agents will work with at-risk youth in Bernalillo, Chaves, Luna, Mora, San Miguel, Socorro and Taos counties, reaching out to youth not previously involved in 4-H, while strengthening traditional 4-H programs in those communities.
"There's a lot of youth in these counties who have never participated in 4-H for a variety of reasons, such as location or perceived social barriers," said Linda Schultz, Extension 4-H youth specialist. "This is an opportunity for them to benefit from 4-H, which helps young people build life skills and confront social problems in healthy ways."
About 50,000 young people currently participate in 4-H in New Mexico. The program, which began in 1912, provides fun, educational activities that teach kids 5 to 19 years old to become productive citizens.
New Mexico's social problems have worsened because of population growth and stratification that have increased negative influences and the potential for risky behavior among urban and rural youth in New Mexico, Schultz said.
In response, Extension recently broadened the 4-H program to provide substance abuse prevention education for at-risk youth through after-school programs. An earlier Justice Department grant financed 4-H Share/Care, a three-year after-school program that has benefited more than 3,000 kids in 12 counties since 1999.
The new grant broadens the effort to reach underserved youth by going beyond after-school programs.
"This is an opportunity to extend the success of the Share/Care grant," said Justin Trager, 4-H Share/Care coordinator for Bernalillo County. "Share/Care was strictly substance abuse prevention education that relied primarily on after-school programs. We now have a much broader youth development mandate that will include everything from 4-H clubs to recreational activities and educational projects, both in and out of school."
Bernalillo County's new 4-H agent will work primarily with Hispanic youth in the Southeast Heights, and possibly other areas such as the South Valley.
The other counties, which were not included in the Share/Care program, were chosen because they have significant at-risk youth populations that require additional staff for effective 4-H outreach. Taos County, for example, has not had a full-time 4-H agent since 1992, yet 40 percent of the county's youth is estimated to be at-risk, said Reynaldo Torres, program director with the Taos County Extension office.
"We have a lot of at-risk kids who face all kinds of negative influences," Torres said. "Many are latchkey children from single-parent homes who would really benefit from the conflict resolution and confidence-building activities that 4-H offers."
San Miguel and Mora counties, two of the poorest counties in the nation, have never had a full-time 4-H agent. Under the grant, one agent will work with both counties, primarily targeting first- through sixth-graders.
"We have a lot of underserved youth here, so we expect the new agent will help us reach a lot more kids through in-school and after-school programs," said Skip Finley, program director with the Mora County Extension office.
In Luna County, which has the state's highest teen pregnancy rate and a growing gang problem, 4-H outreach will focus on Deming and rural communities along the Mexican border, Schultz said.
In Socorro County, sparse population and extreme distances between communities have truncated youth development programs, Schultz said. 4-H outreach will focus on the Rio Grande corridor, comprised largely of small Hispanic communities, and on the Alamo Navajo Indian Reservation.
Chaves County has a full-time 4-H agent, but population growth and high poverty rates make it difficult to reach at-risk kids, said James Duffey, program director with the Chaves County Extension office. The new agent will focus on Roswell neighborhoods and some rural communities, emphasizing school enrichment and after-school programs, as well as nontraditional 4-H projects like wildlife, photography and shooting sports.
"All New Mexico counties have at-risk youth populations, but we have particularly high rates of juvenile crime, dropouts and poverty," Duffey said. "We all want a magic wand to solve the problems. This isn't a magic wand, but by increasing 4-H outreach, we can have a significant impact on youth problems in Chaves County and elsewhere."
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