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Ohio 4-H adapts to serve youth amid pandemic

“Camp…ish,” Ohio’s first statewide virtual camp, will include flag ceremonies and campfire songs

Ohio 4-H camp has been called “the best week of summer.” It’s all about tie-dyeing T-shirts, learning new line dances, singing around a campfire, cool counselors, and sharing a cabin with your new best friends. But this year, in the era of COVID-19, Ohio 4-H camp will be online and “camp…ish.”

In fact, numerous Ohio State-affiliated summer camps are making individual decisions about whether to transition to a virtual model, cancel for summer 2020 or adjust their plans based on the state’s Responsible RestartOhio requirements and the university’s phased approach to resuming on-campus operations.

Through July 6, all in-person university events are canceled, and all non-essential university employees are to continue teleworking. The university has created the COVID-19 transition task force and plans to announce decisions by mid-June.

Throughout Ohio, 4-H camp has traditionally been very popular. Last year’s participants included 12,079 campers ages 5 to 19, including more than 2,000 teen counselors. Of those campers, 7,126 participated in overnight camps and 4,953 participated in day camps. But in the interest of keeping youth safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, the move to virtual camp is necessary.

Ohio 4-H, the youth development program of OSU Extension, annually offers or sponsors 4-H camps to youth in all 88 of Ohio’s counties.

“The decision to cancel Ohio 4-H camps this summer was not an easy one,” said Hannah Epley, interim associate state 4-H leader and OSU Extension specialist for camping and older youth.

“But, the first priority of camp is to provide a safe environment for campers,” she said. “And with the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the planning that needs to happen months prior to the start of 4-H camps, it was in the best interest of campers to cancel face-to-face interactions.”

Because a summer without 4-H camp was not an option, OSU Extension educators quickly began developing alternatives. A team collaborated to create best practices in reaching 4-H youth and volunteers using videos and interaction via live platforms such as Zoom.

“Ohio 4-H activities are an important part of spring and summer for many youth – from project work to community service to club meetings, youth grow up with 4-H being a constant in their lives,” said Kirk Bloir, assistant director, Ohio 4-H youth development.

As America’s largest youth development organization, Ohio 4-H served 171,983 students in 4-H clubs in all Ohio counties last year. The organization emphasizes leadership and citizenship skills for Ohio youth through community clubs, camps, schools and short-term experiences.

Ohio 4-H relies on the experiential learning model, which emphasizes “learning by doing” through hands-on activities. Much of this learning revolves around projects selected by the 4-H member. Working in partnership with adult leaders and volunteers, youth delve into animals, computers, public speaking, cooking, art, gardening, leadership and environmental sciences, just to name a few. Most importantly, 4-H helps youth develop important life skills, Bloir said.

“Not being able to meet face-to-face for the past several weeks has been a challenge, but 4-H professionals and volunteers are meeting that challenge with virtual meetings, service work based at home, and videos focused on projects,” he said. “Ohio 4-H advisers and youth have demonstrated resiliency throughout this process, creatively adapting prior efforts and activities to still provide quality experiences.”

That’s included creating the website ohio4h.org/families/stay-connected, with links for virtual activities for 4-H youth and 4-H volunteers. Additionally, OSU Extension has made some 20 project books available for download at that link.

“We also recognized the importance of keeping 4-H members safe during online activities, so all efforts include multiple staff members/professionals to ensure we are providing resources that can happen off-line, while still considering all abilities and accommodations,” Bloir said.

As a result, “Camp…ish,” the first-ever Ohio statewide virtual camp, was created. During three days in June, campers can attend up to three daily sessions featuring live interaction and videos via Zoom.

“We looked at schedules from 4-H camps from past years and figured out how to offer those same experiences virtually,” said Kayla Oberstadt, Ohio 4-H program manager.

Activities will include typical camp rituals such as a flag ceremony, reciting the 4-H pledge, theme days, craft instruction, and new efforts suited to home-based camping.

“Campers won’t be sleeping in cabins, of course, but they will build their own tent or blanket fortress and share the results,” said Oberstadt. “A virtual campfire and songs will conclude one day of the camp.”

There was no reluctance from 4-H members in embracing virtual camp; registration exceeded 350 participants in less than 24 hours after the camp was first announced.

There are also other examples of how 4-H continues to reach Ohio’s youth.

For example, in Muskingum County, 4-H teens who trained as counselors wanted to ensure that youth in their county stayed connected to each other and to camp. They took their cues from the children’s book Not a Box, in which imagination transforms a box into a race car, hot air balloon, boat, or whatever a child can dream it to be, so “Not a Camp” became their camp theme.

At Not a Camp, participants will tackle the ultimate camp s’more, a sidewalk chalk challenge, and an all-camp talent show, all through videos and live interactions.

In Wayne County, 4-H will hold virtual camps on sewing and on food and nutrition.

But, considering that not everyone has internet access or is comfortable with online activities, “Camp at Home” is being offered June 1–10 by Muskingum County 4-H. Families are encouraged to set up a camp inside or outside, and engage in some typical camp activities.

“They can pitch a tent inside or out, sing songs, cook and play games,” said Jamie McConnell, extension educator for Muskingum County 4-H. “Campers will send in four photos of their experience, which will be displayed online for a ‘people’s choice’ vote. The winners will receive camp scholarships for the 2021 Muskingum County Camp.”

At 4-H Camp Palmer in Fulton County, this year’s camp theme was to be “Adventure is calling,” but when summer plans changed, the theme became “Adventure is calling, but we stayed home.”

In order to offer a memorable camp experience, the staff created “Camp in a Box.” For $55, campers will receive a flash drive with instructional videos, supplies for crafts, recipes and a T-shirt. Orders have been received from throughout Ohio and from Camp Palmer alumni in New York City, North Carolina and Germany.

For Ohio 4-H campers, the best week of summer can still include camp.

“I’m as sad as anyone that we can’t physically go to camp,” said McConnell. “But this is a learning experience. It’s about how to persevere and that life doesn’t always go the way we expect, so we’ll help our young people manage those feelings, learn something new and use those skills later in life.”

To find virtual 4-H camps and programming in your county, visit ohio4h.org.

The #4HCampNeedsYouNow Buckeye Funder, a $1.1 million online fundraising campaign, kicked off May 18 to support Ohio 4-H camps, many of which face uncertain futures after losing 75 percent or more of their annual income this year due to the closures.

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