All of Pat McGlaughlin’s skills and duties as a 4-H youth development Extension specialist in Illinois — helping make 4-H accessible, connecting volunteers, addressing healthy relationships and encouraging resilience — have come into play in the last six months during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She says the foundation she got growing up on an Illinois crop and swine farm and taking part in 4-H with her family helped her gain leadership and communication skills she uses today.
Attending a statewide 4-H leadership program as a teen at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign left an impression on her. It led her to get her ag communications degree there, setting things rolling for a career of more than three and a half decades in Extension so far.
“Doors just seem to open,” she said.
During National 4-H week, she reflects on the impact the pandemic has had on 4-H members and their families.
IFT: How has COVID-19 affected your job?
McGLAUGHLIN: It has been an interesting year, but staff all across the state and the support of 4-H families have kept everyone engaged. None of us thought it was going to last so long. I took a few things home from my office in March and thought I would be back in a few weeks.
IFT: What challenges and opportunities has it brought?
McGLAUGHLIN: At first it was hard to visualize how we would provide experiential opportunities for 4-Hers. We were used to doing things a certain way, face-to face learning, but soon found you can do a lot of things digitally. Some things we were able to transfer to virtual delivery. Some things we had to think through and be creative.
IFT: Can you give an example of something that needed major adjustments?
McGLAUGHLIN: 4-H shows. Summer is when students say, “Here is what I have learned.” They show their projects to a judge and explain their knowledge. We transitioned all our county fairs and state fairs to virtual programs. We created a platform so they could upload videos of them showing animals. Kids with cooking, robotics and all kinds of exhibits had a way to upload their projects.
IFT: How did judging work?
McGLAUGHLIN: Many of the judges were 4-H alumni. They provided great feedback for the kids. The judges still provided a learning opportunity giving positive feedback and suggestions of new things to try.
IFT: How was participation?
McGLAUGHLIN: It worked out well. Every county had opportunities to exhibit. More than 2,000 general projects were exhibited virtually — that’s excluding livestock. Our 4-H members were resilient, innovative and creative. I was glad families also had the opportunity to show animals at the Illinois Junior Livestock Expo (at the state fairgrounds in Springfield on Sept. 11).
IFT: What kinds of other programs or activities popped up to fill the gap the pandemic created?
McGLAUGHLIN: Leaders provided activities like making do-it-yourself popsicle flashlights, building robots using things you have at home and making marshmallow catapults.
The youth development educators in Clark, Crawford and Edgar counties created a six-week “Your Thoughts Matter” project to discuss feelings of safety and inclusivity and mental health. When students couldn’t be with their friends doing summer activities it created the potential for a sense of loss. One of the four “H”es is for health. We may think of nutrition, exercise and healthy choices, including not to smoke, but it is also important to have a place to talk and share ideas. Positive mental health is not being stress-free and happy all the time, but it’s being able to cope at a stressful time.
IFT: Are there other programs and activities that were created during the pandemic you think will continue?
McGLAUGHLIN: Yes. Volunteer development is one area. Two platforms were created for volunteers to still get trained and be social. Leaders came together with the Volunteer Café Conversation. The first one was held in August in Zoom calls where people across the state could brainstorm and communicate. Also virtual volunteer training about things that used to take place in offices is being held, offering both information about policy and how to develop engaging club meetings. In November, the training will be on parliamentary procedures. It’s so great 4-H members can learn skills to effectively run meetings. That something they might not learn in a classroom.
IFT: Are the same things happening in other Midwestern states?
McGLAUGHLIN: Yes. A lot of places are doing similar things. I meet bimonthly with my counterparts from 12 surrounding states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin). We share a lot of ideas across the states about youth development. We get perspective from each other.
IFT: What is your reaction to how people have been handling the challenges of the pandemic?
McGLAUGHLIN: I’m really impressed with 4-H families and how resilient they have been. They continue to push forward.
4-H clubs have excelled in the area of community service. That is one piece of 4-H that could have been lost since clubs usually work together on projects like cleaning a park or entertaining at a nursing home. Every April we promote National 4-H Day of Service. This year many 4-Hers made face masks and donated them. Robotics clubs made hundreds and hundreds of face shields with 3D printers. Families helped at food pantries and networked to make school lunches. So many clubs and families offered heartfelt support at a time when it made a huge difference.