Schoolchildren visiting Parker Coliseum in Baton Rouge for AgMagic aren’t just learning about the wonders of agriculture and our natural resources.
Some of them also are contributing items to be included in "hero packs" that will be given to children of military families in Louisiana.
The packs are part of a yearlong 4-H service project called Operation: Military Kids, according to Janet Fox, associate professor for 4-H volunteer and leadership development in the LSU AgCenter.
Fox said the service learning program is designed to reach out to youth and families of National Guard and Reserve members who don’t live on military installations.
"Service learning is a hands-on educational process where youth learn through community service by addressing genuine community needs," she said. "As a result of the service experience, service learning provides the opportunity to develop critical life skills through reflecting upon their experience."
The hero packs will be distributed to children of service men and women, said Debbie Hurlbert in the LSU AgCenter’s 4-H Youth Development department. Inviting participants in AgMagic to contribute items was a way of getting even more young people involved in the project.
"It’s part of a national 4-H initiative, and Louisiana 4-H is participating," Hurlbert explained.
Hurlbert said the state 4-H youth leaders decided Operation: Military Kids would be an appropriate statewide project and asked visitors to AgMagic to contribute writing paper, pens, stationery, disposable cameras, non-breakable picture frames and stuffed animals that will be put in backpacks and given to military families.
Conducted by the LSU AgCenter from April 12 to 21, AgMagic provides school groups a chance to see the link between agriculture and products they use every day. Visiting schoolchildren are depositing their contributions in a box at the entrance to the coliseum.
"This is an example of kids helping kids," said Hurlbert, adding that contributions to this project weren’t mandatory for those participating in AgMagic but that about 20 percent of the groups seemed to be bringing items with them.
"Almost every Louisiana citizen is affected by the deployment of so many military personnel from our communities," said Lauren Mouton, a 4-H’er from Abbeville. "It is important that we remember the sacrifices these families are making for our country, and we should make every effort to honor their efforts."
Mouton said she first became involved with the nationwide project at National 4-H Conference in 2004. Then she began promoting the idea at the state committees on which she serves.
"Our parish has also adopted the program, so I have been involved with parish efforts, such as assembling hero packs and speaking to many school 4-H clubs about ideas for implementing the project," Mouton said.
"I could never imagine constantly wondering about the safety of a parent or even dealing with not having my parents at an important event, such as graduation," she said.
Mouton said she never realized National Guard families don't have the same support system as families of active-duty service personnel.
"National Guard families live a civilian life and are not as used to the idea of the absence of their loved one," she said. "It is so important that we offer our assistance and support to those who need it."
Victor LeBlanc of Abbeville first heard about Operation: Military Kids from Mouton when she returned from the 2004 conference. As a member of the state 4-H executive committee, LeBlanc was instrumental in adopting Operation: Military Kids as a statewide project.
"Through my involvement with this project, I have come to a better understanding of the true heroes we have at home, as well as those serving away from home," LeBlanc said. "I have learned about the many sacrifices the families and soldiers go through and have discovered new ways to help them and support them in their time of need."
Holly Jeter of Anacoco in Vernon Parish lives near Fort Polk.
"The soldiers and their families have direct impact on my life," she said. "I have so many friends in the military and whose parents or spouses are deployed, and I see how difficult it is not knowing where they are or how they are feeling or if they need anything."
"With the 4th H in the 4-Hs standing for ‘hands for larger service,’ 4-H is excited about service learning as it provides opportunities for students to become active, positive contributors to society," Fox said.
"Research shows that service learning helps to develop students’ sense of civic and social responsibility and their citizenship skills," she added. "Youth benefit through the interpersonal development and the ability to relate to culturally diverse groups.
"Because of the strong effects service learning has on youth, service learning is a priority within the LSU AgCenter's 4-H program."
To learn more about the variety of projects and programs offered through the Louisiana 4-H youth development program, visit www.lsuagcenter.com.