Staff Writer

A new program is being introduced in Hancock County to give youth with special needs the opportunity to participate and achieve success in 4-H.

4-H Buddies will pair those with a special need with an experienced mentor who will help guide them through the completion of their project.

“We want to serve as many kids in Hancock County as we can,” said Cassie Anderson, extension educator/county director, 4-H youth development with OSU Extension Hancock County.

“4-H, we’re an inclusive organization. Everybody is welcome,” she said. “But sometimes, we know that there are barriers that make life a little bit more difficult. And this is our stab at eliminating more of those barriers.”

Three college interns in the Extension office have been working to create the new program. They include Lauren Burner, a junior at Ohio State University’s Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster; Conner Hovest, a senior Ohio State University student in Columbus; and Jenna Livingston, a freshman at Bowling Green State University.

Locally, the 4-H program has already been working in this direction, according to Anderson. This is the second year a monthly 4-H cooking club has been held at Van Buren High School for students with special needs.

There was also a first-year 4-H member with special needs last year, said Anderson.

“His mom wanted him to work on his archery project with his sister, and he did that. But you know sometimes how brothers and sisters work,” she said. “So the idea of being able to find a mentor or a buddy for him, who was not his sibling, was one of these thoughts that kind of prompted the idea.”

Hovest said the students researched some of the programs already being offered by 4-H. One of them, A Day in the Ring, showcases the talents of special needs youth as they pair up with a 4-H member to show their animal.

“Those other programs are similar in the way that they’re incorporating mentors. But their buddies meet their mentors the day of the show,” she said. “We’re giving the buddies and mentors the opportunity to have the entire summer to build that relationship and get to know each other and then work on the 4-H project together.”

Buddies will make a wish list, selecting three different 4-H projects that interest them. These could include a still project which runs the gamut from cooking to woodworking to birdwatching, or a livestock project.

There will be a special show at the Hancock County Fair for youth who are sharing a livestock project, she said.

“They’ll actually exhibit their mentor’s livestock,” said Anderson. “When you already have some challenges in life, sometimes that resource is just not there. So we want to eliminate barriers.”

Applications are being taken for both buddies and mentors. Buddies should be between the ages of 8 and 18, and mentors must be at least 13 to apply.

“We will do our best to figure it out for any child,” Anderson said. “In the past, we’ve had lots of kids with physical needs that have gone through 4-H over the years. In different counties in different parts of the nation, you’ll see kids in wheelchairs showing sheep. There’s lots of ways to break down barriers.”

Buddies are not required to join a 4-H club.

“But if we have families that are wanting to join 4-H, we will work with them, with their mentors and their clubs, to have that full experience,” she said. “So it really depends on the individual.”

The application includes an accommodation plan.

“That’s been in place for years in 4-H. So if somebody needs a reasonable accommodation to help them be able to work through and participate in 4-H, that’s what we do for any child,” Anderson said.

Applications are due to the Extension office by April 8. Each mentor will then need to complete a training class.

“Once we pair them, they’ll meet and have the opportunity to connect as the summer goes on,” said Burner. “That way when the fair rolls around, that connection is already built up.”

The goal for this year is 15 mentors and 15 buddies.

For buddies who take a still project but don’t participate in 4-H year-round, a special judging day will be held in July.

“I just think overall it’s a good program,” said Burner. “It’s something that’s expanding and becoming more popular. And I think it’s a good start for Hancock County.”

4-H is more than just completing a project, she noted.

“It teaches responsibility and how to be dedicated to something. But overall it teaches you life skills,” she said. “I think this is an important thing. We’re reaching out to all different types of students in our area, giving them an opportunity to participate. No matter if they have a disability or are facing a challenge or not, they have this opportunity.”

For more information or an application, call the Extension office at 419-422-3851 or send an email to