A common perception of 4-H clubs is that they're all about livestock, so you must own or buy a steer, sow, goat or another animal to join.
Not so, says 4-H leader Shirley Schollenberg and she should know.
Schollenberg, a Ninilchik-area resident, is in her 24th year volunteering with the Trail Blazers 4-H club, which she helped found and which is based at the state fairgrounds in Ninilchik.
Schollenberg's dedication and hard work recently earned her the honor of the 4-H Salute to Excellence award for lifetime achievement.
Although she is primarily a horse person and the Trail Blazers is primarily a horse club, members learn more than good horse-care practices and riding skills and many of them don't own a horse.
"We're a horse club, but in the winter we don't do a lot with horses, so we branched out to do a lot of other things," Schollenberg said.
Those other things include projects in cooking, sewing, shooting sports, crafts and even small animal husbandry with rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters.
Crafts were on the agenda of the club's meeting last Wednesday afternoon.
As part of 4-H's emphasis on public speaking, members give demonstrations of skills they've learned. First-year club member Sarah Cobb and Misty Knox demonstrated how to make fake flowers from real fur.
The "flowers" are made by wrapping and gluing short strips of wolf, coyote, rabbit or sheered and plucked beaver fur around the top of a green wire "stem," complete with fake leaves.
Sarah and Misty's younger sisters, Mattie and Ester, assisted with the demonstration dressed in flowered aprons they'd made for another 4-H project. The pair chanted "keep the fur up" in chorus at preplanned cues several times during the presentation to emphasize the importance of keeping the fur to the outside while wrapping a flower.
Schollenberg is a big fan of the presentations. She was self-conscious as a kid and hopes the speaking practice will give her 4-H'ers a head start on developing confidence in public.
"I was a real shy guy growing up. When I was thrown into a public situation it was real scary," she said. "I don't want these kids to go through that."
Trail Blazer 4-H club members horse around after a meeting last Wednesday. The club has sponsored a summer horse camp at the state fairgrounds in Ninilchik for 22 years.
Photo by Mark Harrison
The biggest event of the year for the Trail Blazers is the horse camp the club has sponsored at the state fairgrounds in Ninilchik for 22 consecutive summers.
Horse camp is actually two camps one for beginning and one for advanced riders. Junior 4-H leaders organize the beginners camp and teach kids the basics from how to properly saddle and bridle a horse to how not to fall off. Schollenberg and a few friends with longtime horse experience teach the advanced riders.
It was Schollenberg's interest in sharing her horse knowledge with others that got her involved in 4-H to begin with 24 years ago. Growing up, she didn't have access to a program like 4-H to learn horse handling and other skills. As an adult, she wants to make sure kids in her area have the opportunity to learn skills in a supportive atmosphere that she missed out on.
"At any hour of the day, a kid can arrive at Shirley's house and have a riding lesson and a snack," said Nancy Veal in her comments nominating Schollenberg for the lifetime achievement award. "She can make work fun. The kids say that even haying is fun when you are with Shirley."
Veal is the 4-H and youth development agent for the Kenai Peninsula at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service.
Although there's plenty of fun to be had at horse camp, the campers have a lot of responsibility, as well.
Namely, each camper is completely responsible for the care, feeding and grooming of their horse for the five days and four nights the camp runs. Such intimacy breeds familiarity and is the best way Schollenberg knows to create not just good riders, but knowledgeable horse people.
"It's not just come to horse camp and let's have fun," she said. "We make them work, too."
The Trail Blazers are known in the peninsula 4-H circle as dependable hard workers and community servants, and Schollenberg leads by example.
Shirley Schollenberg makes a point at a Trail Blazers 4-H club meeting. She is in her 24th year volunteering for the club.
Photo by Mark Harrison
"(The Trail Blazers) are the ones who do most of the 'yard work' (at the Ninilchik Fairgrounds)," Veal said. "This year she and her group mowed the lawns, built flower beds, painted and did general maintenance work. ... At 4-H activities, I can always count on Shirley to be hauling someone's animals, delivering materials whatever it takes to get the job done. And she does it with a smile!"
Another Trail Blazer tradition is the annual St. Jude's ride. Club members collect pledges to make a 10-mile ride on horseback along the beach from Anchor Point to Schollenberg's house in Happy Valley and donate the money to St. Jude's Children's Hospital.
Last year, club members took a slightly longer ride. Twelve members and four leaders flew to Denver for the National Western Livestock Show.
The kids were impressed with the variety of breeds at the show many of which they'd never seen before but it was the woman who guided the group around the show the kids were really curious about.
Or more precisely, the 4-H'ers couldn't hear enough about the agricultural jobs she'd held.
"The biggest thing for (the kids) was to see all the opportunities in agriculturally related jobs," Schollenberg said. "They started wondering how could they get a job doing the things they like to do and get paid for it."
Schollenberg has a hard time pinpointing what has brought her back as a 4-H leader year after year, but she thinks it has something to do with the frustration and ultimate reward in teaching kids about things she values.
Some kids are natural students, but it's the club members she thinks haven't been paying attention that can surprise her with how much they've learned.
"It's the ones you almost give up on that can amaze you," she said. "I think, 'Wow, they actually did listen to me.'"
4-H leader Suzan Cobb arranges a bouquet of fur flowers. Trail Blazer club members made the flowers from strips of coyote, wolf, rabbit and beaver pelt.
Photo by Mark Harrison
In that way, her students are as hard to predict as the horses she barrel races.
"To look at a horse and try and decide what makes a competitive horse is really hard. It's not just what's on the outside, it's the heart in the horse that makes the difference," she said.
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