Benton County 4-H Steps Up During Wildfires

One 4-H crew waits, masked up, to help take care of the 180 animals evacuated to the fairgrounds. Photo courtesy of Juli McLennon.

In the midst of a crazy year, Benton County 4-H Group is more dedicated than ever to serving the community and teaching young people valuable skills and life lessons. From taking care of evacuated animals to learning agricultural and scientific skills virtually, the group is taking the difficulties of this year and turning them into opportunities for growth and compassion.  

“I’m just so proud of our 4-H volunteers and members, they really are showing what Benton County 4-H is all about, and that’s giving back to the community,” said Carolyn Ashton, an associate professor at Oregon State University and a 4-H leader.  

4-H is conducted by Cooperative Extension, a community of over 100 public universities across the U.S. that provide educational opportunities for youth to reach their fullest potential. Through its various programs, which are currently led online, students can learn about agriculture, health, science, civic engagement, and sewing. The Benton County chapter contains 650 members anywhere from ages 5 to 19.   

It would be easy to assume that a group whose peak season revolves around the fair would have little to no activity in a year when fairs and large gatherings are prohibited. However, that is far from the case.   

4- and Wildfire Assistance  

When wildfires ravaged Oregon in early September, the Benton County Fairgrounds, which works closely with 4-H, reached out to Carolyn Ashton for assistance with animals evacuated to the fairgrounds.   

“For me personally to see the outpouring of support and kindness and willingness to do whatever it takes to make this situation better for the evacuees – that is what warms my heart. It made me so proud to be a part of this program. The 4-H community, when there is a need, they step up,” Ashton said.   

Ashton sent out a call for volunteers and nearly 80 of the Benton County 4-H members and adult volunteers reached out to help. She and McLennon created a shift schedule for volunteers to care for the roughly 180 animals, including bunnies, pigs, goats and horses.   

“They have tirelessly assisted the Fairgrounds and evacuees with livestock, even camping out at the Fairgrounds to provide round-the-clock assistance. We are the only county in the valley that is still accepting livestock, and that is largely due to the efforts by our 4-H volunteers,” Benton County Public Information Office Alyssa Rash said shortly after the fires began.    

Through tireless efforts, they were able to provide enough support to keep the animals well taken care of while families retreated from the flames. Their service aided the community immensely, but it is far from the only thing they are doing this year.  

“I’ve known for a long time that 4-H is just an amazing organization. All three of my kids do it,” said Juli McLennon, who leads two 4-H groups. “It has so much to offer, so I have always been an incredible fan of 4-H, but the community is super strong and comes together to help people no matter what, no matter where they are.”  

4-H and 2020  

Three 4-H members work at the fairgrounds to ensure evacuated animals receive the care they need. Photo courtesy of Juli McLennon.

4-H cultivated this community of dedicated volunteers by diligently providing their educational programs virtually. Ashton and another 4-H educator Elli Korthuis just began a new program called the Reading Circle in which participants will create children’s stories that will be printed through OSU.  

Youth can contribute as writers, illustrators, readers, or a combination of roles. Once the books are completed, readers will present the books in a 4-H Cloverbud meeting, consisting of five to eight-year-olds.  

Korthuis is also speaking with Benton County Library branches to hopefully have the stories available for checkout at the four branches – Monroe, Corvallis, Philomath and Alsea, and perhaps film 4-H members reading the stories.  

Our 4-H members have limited opportunities to share their projects in areas like art or creative writing. The main event to do so is the Benton County Fair. We hope this will give them another chance to share their projects with others,” Korthuis said.  

The 4-H year just began again on Oct. 1, and while they are still conducting their meetings virtually, they hope this year’s members will be able to show their work at the fair next summer. Regardless, they will still find ways to contribute to the community and enrich the lives of Benton County Youth.  

Young people can still join 4-H for this year by filling out an interest form on the website.  

By Jessica Goddard