In a neighborhood plagued by boarded-up homes, drug deals and drive-by shootings, 11-year-old Tiarra Comer pads along a path in a small wooded area and crosses a creek until she comes into a clearing.
She enters a wooden, shed-like building and gazes with wonder at two 500-gallon fish tanks containing bluegill.
A group historically associated with farming — 4-H — has set up the tanks to create an oasis, where children feed the fish, clean their tanks and then sell them for food or for stocking ponds.
4-H and another group with roots in farming, the National FFA Organization, have intensified efforts to involve city kids, luring them with projects and hobbies often unrelated to farming, such as digital photography, skateboarding and fashion.
It’s a way for the groups to attract new members while fulfilling their mission of mentoring to children.
Not just cows and cookies
“It’s an audience that 4-H has really missed out on over the course of the last few decades,” said Nate Arnett, director of the Dayton 4-H program. “And it’s one that’s interested in getting involved with stuff, especially now that we’ve changed the image with 4-H and started to use a language that’s not just cows and cookies.”
About 7 million children — most of them ages 9 to 19 — participated in 4-H programs in 2002, up from 6.8 million two years earlier. Children in cities of 50,000 and more accounted for about 25 percent of the 4-H participants.
Founded in nearby Springfield in 1902, 4-H sprang from the government’s effort to use rural youth programs to introduce new technology to adult farmers and ranchers.
Today, the Dayton program uses science and nature lessons to teach kids responsibility, leadership and business skills.
For Tiarra, just seeing large tanks of fish is a new experience. Her pets have been limited to birds, for the most part. “One got out of its cage and flew into cooking grease and drowned,” she said.
Developing math skills
In New York City, the 4-H office is right down the street from the Empire State Building. About 20,000 people are involved in New York 4-H projects and members hail from all five boroughs.
While the program has been in the city for decades, the projects have taken on more of a city flavor in recent years.
To develop math skills, members toss flying discs, measure distances and use fashion — measuring sizes of jeans on different body types. Members have also used satellite data to draw maps of the city.
Doralis Nunez, a 17-year-old from the Bronx, joined 4-H when she was 12 because she was interested in the group’s career-prep programs. She took several trips upstate to Cornell University, where she stayed in dorms and attended classes.
Nunez never thought of 4-H as a farm organization, but she got a taste of it when she met with 4-H members in Ithaca, where Cornell is located.
“It’s so weird,” she said, adding that animals are seldom discussed among her New York 4-H friends.
Philadelphia stays with 4-H roots
But the 4-H program in Philadelphia emphasizes agricultural projects, with members showing livestock, hatching chicks and socializing puppies that become seeing-eye dogs.
Jackie Simon, extension educator for the Philadelphia 4-H, believes that agriculture and the outdoors can be a tonic for children from an urban setting.
“The kids don’t even know what a park is — some of the inner-city kids. They don’t even know what a trail is,” Simon said.
Laura Borton, 19, joined 4-H because she wanted to raise puppies, an expense her family couldn’t afford.
“We really couldn’t own a dog of our own,” she said.
Borton walks the puppies around shopping centers so the animals get used to crowds of people and the noise they make.
One of the non-agriculture programs by 4-H resulted in a skateboard park the group helped build in Bozeman, Mont.
From pigs to skateboards
“We definitely tapped into an audience we wouldn’t have otherwise reached,” said Todd Kesner, 4-H extension agent for the area. “Initially, they wondered if they had to raise a pig or something.”
Kesner and some local college students produced an instructional book on skateboarding patterned after a 4-H book on horseback riding. Kids were taught skateboard safety and etiquette, and they helped raise money for the park, worked with city officials to make it happen and taught their younger counterparts skateboard skills.
The National FFA Organization, formerly known as the Future Farmers of America, also has programs at high schools in the nation’s largest cities. With roughly a third of FFA’s 482,918 members living in cities or suburbs, the organization has opened chapters at 11 of the biggest cities, including New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.
FFA is trying to attract more members by giving students information on careers in the science and business aspects of agriculture.
“We’re not really getting away from our farm roots,” spokeswoman Kristy Meyer said. “We’re just expanding.”