The role of caring adults in positive youth development: 4-H Volunteers impact youth mental health

Lisa Sprangers, a 4-H volunteer in Outagamie County, first met 4-H member Lily Schwartz when they served together on the Wisconsin 4-H Leadership Council. Sprangers remembers when they were initiated as co-presidents of the Council, “We were going up on stage and Lily looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know what am I doing.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know what we are doing either, but we’ll figure it out together.” When it comes to being a 4-H volunteer, Sprangers sees her role as one of support, “I’m the problem solver or the person that listens. I would equate it to coaching.” Sprangers said.

Beginning 4-H at age 9, Schwartz, who is now a freshman at UW-Stout, has had a lot of experience with 4-H volunteers. “The adult volunteers through 4-H really boost my self-confidence and support me in a way that school and parents can’t. Someone outside of your immediate family, having such faith and support in you and following through and wanting you to achieve your dreams. It’s really good. It’s really important,” said Schwartz.

4-H Volunteer helps 4-H member plan event
Sprangers and Schwartz work together on an activity

The soil of positive youth development

Having adult volunteers is more than a logistical or organizational solution. It’s built into the 4-H Thriving Model. Caring adults from the community provide an important support system for youth. Research shows that having safe adults that youth can turn to, in addition to parents and guardians, helps youth gain a sense of belonging. And a sense of belonging is key to positive youth development.

Dawn Vandevoort, 4-H Volunteer Development Specialist, uses the 4-H flower graphic to describe the Thriving Model, explaining that the flower grows best when it’s in good soil. When the “soil” that surrounds youth provides a sense of belonging, they are more able to learn and grow. “Caring adults are really part of that. And making sure that our caring adults are prepared to help support and encourage young people, that’s really critical for our young people to grow up and find their future and thrive,” said Vandevoort. 

Vandevoort’s role in 4-H is providing support and training to adult volunteers so they have the tools they need to foster a sense of belonging and “spark” curiosity. Every 4-H volunteer goes through a series of trainings to better understand research-based best practices for working with youth and the roles and responsibilities of 4-H volunteers. Once they begin working with youth, volunteers are encouraged to identify additional resources or training needs that would help them succeed. Each volunteer has a county 4-H educator available to provide that training and connect them with local and statewide resources. 

Supporting youth mental health

In the last several years, there has been an increase in volunteer requests for youth mental health support. Vandevoort said, ”We’re seeing a lot more adults that are curious about how they can support young people. It’s becoming more important to them and it’s more visible. People are talking about it more, which is great. That’s what we want is raising that awareness and visibility. That it’s OK to talk about mental health.”

In response, Extension’s Behavioral Health team created a training for 4-H volunteers, focused on helping adults know how to respond when youth come to them with big questions. Called “Supporting Youth Mental Health” (SYMH) the training gives volunteers tools and encourages adults to support youth as they think through the issue, rather than solving problems for them.

Heidi Groth, a 4-H volunteer first in LaCrosse County and now in Brown, said that as a 4-H leader she did not have a lot of situations where youth sought out mental health support, since meetings were short and focused. “Other than maybe basic conflict resolution where two kids want the same item, that’s about the most I’ve ever dealt with at the club level,” said Groth. Once she started to volunteer for extended experiences, like overnight trips, that changed. That’s when she signed up for the SYMH training.

She is glad to have the additional training because SYMH prepared her for situations that she would not otherwise think about. During the training, she commented that some of the scenarios seemed very serious, more serious than she expected to encounter. “Emily [the trainer] said, ‘Well, you never know. You’re going to go on an experience. As the adult, you might have kind of a big question or a big event happen.’” Not too long after, Groth got one of those big questions from a youth in her group. Groth said, “I definitely appreciated the idea that you don’t have to answer immediately. You can take a second to collect your thoughts.”

Since then, Groth has had multiple opportunities to support youth with big questions and big events. She has guided youth through box breathing exercises to help with nerves before giving a speech and helped youth identify priorities when overwhelmed. Groth said, “I was glad the training emphasized the idea that different relationships are going to require a different level of need from you, and different youth are going to need different support depending on their age, depending on the circumstances; the idea that here are some specific tools in your toolbox. You, as an adult, need to choose the correct tool for the moment.”

How adults are contributing

Caring adults are a big piece of the 4-H thriving model and they continue to show up for youth throughout Wisconsin. Last year, 4-H volunteers gave 293,000 hours of their time to youth. And those relationships are making an impact. “I work with volunteers across the whole state and it is amazing to see adults who truly care for the young people of our communities and support them and encourage them and spend their free time. They really, truly are investing their free time to make sure that our youth are prepared for their future,” said Vandevoort.

Groth has seen the impact firsthand in the youth that she supports. “There are things that are awkward to bring up with the adults that are very close in their life because they could be things that they’re worried about how that adult is going to feel about that.” Groth has had youth ask her to help them figure out how to respectfully talk to their parents about a tough situation. “They don’t want to disappoint their parents, and their parents’ expectations are a good thing. But at the same time, they realize and know this is not going to be what their parents want to hear.” Groth said she often has youth ask her to be a sounding board so they don’t sound disrespectful and rude to their parents. 

Groth has also seen the impact of caring adults on her own family and herself as a parent. “My own experience growing up did not prepare me for parenthood. There’s a whole lot of situations as a parent that I was not prepared for, and it’s really nice that I don’t have to feel like all of that’s on me. My kids have somebody else to go to.” 

Getting involved

Raising four kids and working full-time does not leave a lot of extra time for Groth to volunteer, but she has continued because it is so rewarding, “These things that you’re excited about, youth are excited about them too, and they’re experiencing them for the first time. So, it’s like you get to relive it all over again. The best experiences of your life when you first discovered this new hobby or this new talent. You get to relive that moment again. So it’s fantastic. I love that.”

Sprangers has been a 4-H volunteer for 17 years. Even though her kids are grown up and no longer in 4-H, she plans to continue volunteering. Sprangers said that she learns so much from the youth and the experience has helped her become a better communicator overall. “I think the words that come to mind is that it fills my bucket. There are so many positives of working alongside youth. Seeing and helping youth succeed, it just makes me feel good,” said Sprangers.

While a lot of adults serve as 4-H community club leaders, clubs also need project leaders that can help youth learn specific project skills. But, your contribution could be as simple as helping out as needed. Groth said, “The adults in 4-H need other adults, because I’m not an expert in everything, so I need somebody else to be there as the expert in things. And the youth need a variety of adults to do it. So even if you think your contribution isn’t going to be super worthwhile, try anyway. Learn along with the kids, and you’ll probably find that your experience is rewarding.”

If you’re interested in becoming a 4-H volunteer, contact your local county extension office to discuss options with your 4-H or Positive Youth Development Educator.