As Minnesota 4-H Club members showcase their projects at the State Fair this week, the venerable youth development organization has something else to highlight: It's growing, despite the ailing economy and some cuts in public funding.

A new commitment in recent years to city clubs, new funding partnerships and a broadened focus on science, engineering and technology have helped 4-H remain relevant, even while today's youth have far more activities and interests competing for their time and attention.

Statewide, 4-H club membership has grown 26 percent since 2004, from 26,100 to 32,898 at the end of last year, the organization reports. The numbers rose in Hennepin County by 215 percent, to 727, and Ramsey County by 471 percent, to 925, during that time, even though Hennepin's total fell last year as a large number of members graduated from the program.

While club membership is the most familiar aspect of 4-H to most people, the Minnesota organization reaches tens of thousands more young people statewide through camping, youth-teaching-youth programs and short-term activities such as get-togethers to learn about robotics and performing arts. In total, 4-H said it reached 123,746 youth in 2008.

Meanwhile, in most of the state's 87 counties, funding for 4-H has held fairly stable. By comparison, national studies show that a majority of after-school programs report funding cuts, with one in 10 losing enough to cause major changes or cancellation, said Jen Rinehart, vice president for research and policy at the Washington-based Afterschool Alliance.

State 4-H officials hope that recent diversification efforts will make the organization less reliant on government aid and help shield it from future funding threats. The organization, which has long relied on a corps of dedicated volunteers and traditionally has been linked in the public eye with agriculture, is now also pursuing private and corporate partners to provide funding and expertise for its new emphasis on science.

"It's a fundamental change in our thinking," said Dale Blyth, director of the University of Minnesota's Extension Center for Youth Development. "The way to partner and to go after that growth wouldn't have been possible with old thinking."

Projects and partners

Take 4-H member Amanda Ryan, for example. At the Northside Child Development Center in Minneapolis, the 15-year-old from Golden Valley has been working on an IBM TryScience nutrition project, using computers provided by the University of Minnesota's Digital Divide Initiative. She will present her Kazaam Salad at the State Fair, demonstrating not only her culinary chops, but also the science to back up her claim that it contains everything a person would need to eat in a day.

Other Minnesota 4-Hers are studying wind power in a partnership with 3M.

Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. is providing GPS systems to help kids learn how global positioning technology can help during local emergencies.

Lego provides programming for robotics projects.

At the same time, 4-H is trying to save by streamlining operations, relying on the Internet to facilitate communications, training and paperwork, for instance.

Collaboration may become even more important over time. Traditionally, 4-H's $8.5 million basic statewide budget has been built on a funding structure that's about 13 percent federal, 18 percent state and 69 percent county. But state and local officials know that regardless of how much folks might like 4-H, it could be vulnerable to funding reductions as governments make hard budget choices.

The was the situation this year in Washington County, where the 4-H operation will lose its county funding Sept. 15 after commissioners voted to cut $130,000 spent annually on the program. Volunteers have raised enough money through private donations to fund one of the two program coordinators through the end of the year.

Even before the current recession, 4-H leaders at the state level responded to lagging participation by creating partnerships in urban areas. At churches, schools and community centers that once offered short-term programming, 4-H dedicated staff to create long-term clubs.

In some cases, the shifts meant a heavier reliance on volunteers in traditional suburban and rural settings, said Dorothy McCargo Freeman, state 4-H program leader. "The potential for growth is in the urban pockets, so we have intentionally put more programming efforts and staff in those areas," she said.

For the long term, Blyth hopes the changes 4-H has made will buffer the organization from future cuts. In the short term, the changes have opened up staff and volunteer time to focus on clubs.

"We recognize and value our county partners, but we also recognize that Extension is not a mandated county service," he said, adding that he anticipates fewer than 10 counties may cut 4-H funding in 2010, although others will face challenges. "Will we have to make programming different? Will we have fewer kids, potentially? Sure, all those are potential consequences, but we're not going to shut down and we're not going to simply try to do business the same way. We look for ways to do business that's both effective and efficient."

Staff writer Kevin Giles contributed to this report. Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409

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