BENTON, Kan. – Will Johnson and his wife, Estell, grew up in what they call an urban environment. As children, neither of them was involved in the 4-H program, because they thought it was only for rural youth who lived on farms.
“Not until I became the county administrator for Butler County and got engaged with the extension office and with the 4-H program, did I see the value of 4-H and what it can do for children in our community,” Will said. He and his wife have four children, two girls and two boys. The girls—Erin, 10, and Emma, 7—are 4-H members.
The Johnsons started their 4-H journey by getting more involved in their local club and taking on one animal project, rabbits. Will said even though he and his family live in town, the opportunity was there for his daughters to take part in an animal project and learn responsibility.
“We started off with three rabbits, and now my daughters have a barn with about 50 rabbits and compete nationally,” he said.
The Johnsons are an example that you don’t have to live on a farm to participate in 4-H. In fact, a 2012 Kansas 4-H survey showed most 4-H’ers in the state, 28 percent, live in populated areas of more than 50,000 people. Furthermore, that same survey showed that more than half of Kansas 4-H members participate in a project related to science, engineering and technology. A majority of those projects relate to animal science, which includes the rabbit project.
Showing rabbits and other projects
“Our goal is for our daughters to breed their own rabbits, learn to pick out the right rabbits and cull out the wrong rabbits,” Will said. “We’ve met so many great people along the way who have helped us reach our goals as a family and our daughters’ goals individually with their projects.”
He said it is heartwarming to see all of the adult volunteers who help out with the rabbit project, especially because many of the volunteers no longer have children involved in 4-H and the rabbit project.
“It doesn’t stop when your kids finish for a majority of these people,” Will said. “They continue to give back. It’s very rewarding for our family to see that.”
Will and Estell also volunteer as rabbit project leaders for their daughters’ local club. Estell is one of the 4-H club leaders. That local 4-H club in Benton has grown from about 40 youth members three years ago to 93 members today.
In addition to the rabbit project, Erin, in her third year of 4-H, has also participated in projects that include photography, leather and crochet. This is Emma’s first year in 4-H.
The diversity, Will said, is what makes 4-H different than other clubs and sports in which children can take part.
“Each project brings leadership to a child,” Will said. “There are so many different projects that a child can get involved in, and each one is different and can be tailored to any family. That is the unique thing about 4-H. You can do whatever your heart desires.”
Learning life skills
The variety of projects available keeps 4-H’ers engaged and allows them to learn life skills, Will said.
“As they may get burned out in one project area, they can switch to a new project area,” he said. “Every project they do teaches them life skills, and we find that to be very invaluable.”
Maintaining ownership of a project and doing the record keeping prepares a child for the workforce. As an employer himself, Will said he looks to hire people with a background in 4-H or other civic organizations.
These are the individuals, he said, who know not only life skills but also the importance of applying those skills to better their local communities. The recent Kansas 4-H survey showed that more than a third of all Kansas 4-H’ers participate in citizenship or leadership in their communities.
The Johnsons’ 4-H club engages with the community through many different activities such as hosting a “Christmas with Kids” event, serving dinner at the Lions Club or even putting on benefit dinners for people who need extra help in the community.
“A good club is going to be civic-minded and do things to benefit the community,” Will said. “You see them engage outside of their typical fair projects with other community-based projects, to bring the community closer together.”
For more information about Kansas 4-H and its opportunities for youth to learn about the sciences, life skills and bettering their communities, visit