When a 100th anniversary rolls around, someone needs to throw a party. That’s exactly what MontanaPBS will do this summer and the guest of honor is Montana 4-H.
The anniversary gift is “4-H: Six Montana Stories,” a 90-minute documentary that follows six Montana 4-H kids for a full year. As they work on their projects, the youngsters learn discipline and responsibility while facing and overcoming challenges. The program premieres on MontanaPBS at 8 p.m. Monday, July 23.
From its first club project in 1912 – a corn contest – Montana 4-H has kept its focus on cultivating boys and girls with character, self-confidence and physical and intellectual strength. Much about the organization has changed, much hasn’t. Today Montana 4-H offers more than 200 different projects and approximately one out of six school-age youth in the state are 4-H members.
MontanaPBS producer Gus Chambers had his own ideas about what 4-H meant. He’d spent most of his television career making historical documentaries about warehouse explosions in Butte or bear attacks in Glacier Park and was looking for something new and outside his comfort zone.
“I thought 4-H was just sows, cows and plows,” Chambers said, “a quaint slice of Americana that was rapidly disappearing from the cultural landscape. I was completely wrong.”
Chambers, with help from the staff at the Montana 4-H Center for Youth Development at Montana State University, selected six young people to profile in the documentary.
“We weren’t looking for over-achievers,” Chambers said. “We wanted average kids who would grow and change over the course of their 4-H year.”
The diverse group has different interests, projects, goals, backgrounds and geographies. Chambers set out with his camera, travelling more than 22,000 miles, to chronicle their changes and their challenges, and to learn what it means to get something “4-H done.”
Garret Jolma from Winnett was just 13 years old when he was chosen. His projects include wind energy, gardening and entomology. He receives help with his bug collection from townspeople who spot an unfamiliar insect. The goal of his wind energy project is to find the best spot in town to erect a wind turbine.
In Denton viewers meet Mitch Ward, a fourth-generation 4-H’er. His great-grandfather started the first 4-H club in Teton County. In addition to his pig and lamb projects, Ward is involved in several other organizations, including Future Farmers of America and plays just about every sport in high school. He also mentors his younger sister, Morgan, on her first-year 4-H project.
At age 12, Jordan Stoltz from Valier had already applied for and received a loan to start her own hog breeding business. Unfortunately a long, harsh winter leaves Stoltz with a failing business and a loan payment that’s due. For Jordan it’s a valuable lesson in responsibility and community.
4-H is new to Wheatland County. The chapter was started by the first extension agent the area has had in 70 years. Riley Reed is the daughter of the new extension agent and Chambers follows her projects in horse, cooking, junior leadership and rabbit.
“You’d think having a mom as an extension agent would be full of perks,” said Chambers. “Actually, it works against Riley. Neither one of them wants to give the slightest impression of favoritism.”
Hardin freshman Katie McCleary moved from Pretty Eagle School, a Catholic academy for Crow and Northern Cheyenne kids, to Hardin High School. Katie’s 4-H friends showed her around and smoothed the transition. Her project is teen leadership, and she’s mentoring children in the pre-4-H program called Cloverbuds and giving younger 4-H’ers a hands-up.
Finally, there’s Beker Cuelho from Manhattan. He’s the oldest in a large family that has eight other 4-H members. Cuelho mentors his younger siblings in their projects while pursuing his own in photography, film making and robotics.
“One of the most important features of 4-H is leadership,” says Chambers, “and Beker is a born leader.”
Chambers says he hopes his documentary will broaden the horizons of viewers who know as little about 4-H as he did when he started.
“And on the flip side, I’m hoping that viewers who are 4-H alums will catch a glimpse of themselves in at least one of the six stories,” he said.
“4-H: Six Montana Stories” was made possible with funding from the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, the Greater Montana Foundation and The University of Montana.
NOTE TO MEDIA: High resolution photographs are available at the “4-H: Six Montana Stories” pressroom at http://www.montanapbs.org/4HSixMontanaStories/pressroom/.
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