Vaccine mandate may kill 4-H volunteer youth program

Sep 15, 2021

An order from the state, Proclamation 21-14.1, requires that volunteers in “educational settings” who are “serving groups of children from multiple households” must take the COVID vaccine. Volunteers who do not will be barred from volunteering. The order puts Washington State University Extension Service in the difficult position of telling 4-H volunteers to get the shot or get out.

Or, at least, that’s what the letter sent from WSU Extension offices all over the state to 4-H volunteers said.

The relationship between 4-H volunteers and the state is complicated and, in 2017, after nearly 100 years of being free to enroll, Washington state began charging a $25 per member registration fee to participate in 4-H. Only $5 of the fee remains in the county of the registering member to conduct 4-H on a county level while the remaining $20 goes to the state for “safe environment and risk management; quality educational programs and experiences; and marketing, promotion, and growing our program at county and state levels.”

In other words, the state makes people pay to join a volunteer educational program. Between the 2018-19 and 2020-21 registration years, 4-H membership has dropped 82 percent. In 2019 there were more than 54,000 Washington state youth involved in 4-H. As of September 7, just 9,670 youth participants were reported, with year-end membership totals due by the end of the month. 

Perhaps a small downturn could be forgiven when considering the harsh lessons COVID heaped upon 4-H participants last year. The WSU Extension service prohibited in-person meetings of 4-H clubs, county fairs were canceled, and 4-H participants were left without any guidance for their projects whether they involved art, livestock, robotics, floriculture, or any of the other myriad offerings available.

Or, perhaps, it is time for communities where 4-H is the extracurricular activity available for youth ages 5-18 to create a program not dependent on the state but which teaches the same positive values. 

The four “H’s” in the program stand for “head, heart, hands, and health,” and all four qualities espouse and teach a set of values just as important today as they were in 1918, when they were written into the “4-H Creed.” The creed teaches participants to “pledge” their “heads to clearer thinking, hearts to greater loyalty, hands to larger service, and health to better living” for the betterment of their communities.

The first is a pledge to clearer thinking. Putting logical thought first is intentional. And logical thought dictates that if volunteers follow safety protocols – masking, social distancing, canceling meetings when someone is ill, etc. – there is no need for a vaccine mandate that has the potential to end a program that has given youth an opportunity to learn the value of logic, loyalty, volunteerism, and healthy living.

If the state cannot give those volunteers the opportunity to do that, then perhaps those volunteers can find a way to continue to teach the values of 4-H without a dependence upon the structure of the state for support, and all the mandates and restrictions that come with it.