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4-H volunteers reap rewards
By Patti Drapala
MSU Ag Communications
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- For two Mississippi women, 140 years of combined service to the state 4-H program is not enough.
Lucille Williams, 89, of Canton and Thelma Wood Harris, 90, of Natchez, are among the 7,500 adult volunteer leaders serving 101,000 youth enrolled in Mississippi 4-H. Even at their age, these women have no intention of slowing down.
Both women were born in a period of the state's history when no 4-H program existed for black children. A network of Extension Negro home demonstration agents working within the black community laid the foundation for such a program to later fall into place.
Agents taught families how to use every available resource on the farm to make food, clothing, toiletries, furnishings and medicine. The lessons evolved into organized meetings for youth and adults.
“As children, we learned to take what we had and make what we needed,” Williams said. “Nothing ever went to waste as there were no supermarkets to go buy essentials in those days.”
Agents also urged young people to better their communities through education, service and opportunity. Their commitment resulted in a 4-H program for black children.
“My first agent, Ethel Robinson, and many other Extension leaders within the black community had strong character and set an example to follow,” Harris said.
An important pioneer in the 4-H movement for black children was Flora Parrish, who was home demonstration agent in Madison County. Williams remembered the persistent effort Parrish exerted to organize 4-H clubs and establish a recreational outdoor camp to strengthen the ability of volunteer leaders to provide additional learning activities.
“Mrs. Parrish reached out into the community to secure land for a camp, and appropriately, the camp was named in her honor,” Williams said. “We had a wonderful facility because of her never-give-up attitude and hard work.”
As more black leaders immersed themselves in the growing civil rights movement, Harris was inspired to help others by continuing her education. She attended Tulane University in New Orleans to study nursing and received Red Cross certification.
Harris began her nursing career in Adams County, where she married and farmed with her husband. Never far from her thoughts was her love and concern for children, which led Harris to become a volunteer leader for the Sageville 4-H Club in Adams County.
Williams also was motivated to pursue higher education, and she attended Jackson College (now Jackson State University) to earn a teaching degree. She taught mathematics, English, reading, speech and history in public schools while she and her husband raised their five children. Williams used whatever spare time left to serve as a volunteer leader with the Busy Bee 4-H Club in Madison County.
Both women remain leaders for those clubs.
“Volunteer leaders, like these two women of strong faith and willpower, give of themselves to make a difference in the lives of young people,” said Harvey Gordon, state 4-H specialist and coordinator of the volunteer leader development program. “It would be impossible for Extension to provide quality programs for youth without the support of dedicated people.”
Both women plan to attend 4-H events as long as they are able. Harris said she is eager to attend another Southern Region 4-H Volunteer Leaders Forum at Rock Eagle 4-H Center in Georgia. The last time she traveled to the forum, she was recognized as the oldest volunteer there.
“I have 160 acres that I still farm, I keep my horses and cows on my own pastureland, and I have a garden to raise my own food,” Harris said. “As a 4-H leader, I still want to show children that it is important to learn how to take care of yourself so you can be self sufficient.”
Self sufficiency isn't the only reward of leadership.
“My former 4-H members who are adults meet me on the street and say, ‘Miss Lucille, do you remember when we went there or did this?'” Williams said. “When you serve as a 4-H volunteer leader, you reach people that you never dreamed of influencing.”