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No Kidding Around

Nick LoPresti Photos

At the New York State Fair you’re sure to sniff the finest roses, sip the classiest wines and gaze upon the most handsome livestock, but make sure to also tour the Youth Building, where you’re certain to be impressed by young people at their poised and polished best.

Kids ages 5 to 19, all members of 4-H, present their projects beneath colorful banners revealing which of 18 counties they call home. Last year’s displays filled the building with projects on bird-watching, fashion design, gardening, chemistry, puppetry, cheese-making, target shooting, public speaking, volcanoes, dog training, martial arts and dozens of other arts and sciences.

Although many of the projects are fascinating and entertaining, it’s the passion with which the creators present them that is most impressive. The Youth Building’s stage, for instance, challenges the kids to put their performing talents front and center.

“The stage is an opportunity for young people to exhibit their public speaking skills doing a presentation, a demonstration or an illustrated talk or speech or recitation. Or it may be musical talent or other talent,” explained JoAnne Baldini, New York State 4-H program specialist. “It’s an opportunity for those young people to strut their stuff in front of a very difficult audience. Having a moving audience is really hard. How do you get them to want to come and sit down and stay for a few minutes?”

As four teen models strode confidently across the stage during the 2007 fair, emcee Megan Fitzgerald described the fashions they wore, each designed and created by the wearer.

Sixteen-year-old Fitzgerald found her voice through 4-H projects. “I do a lot of public speaking,” she said. “I do my demonstrations every year for 4-H and I’m a lay leader at my church. Here, I’m not just a commentator. I’m also the emcee, so I do a lot of the announcements over the loudspeaker. I was really nervous the first time I did this when I was 12, but now it’s not a big deal.”

Baldini, who works for Cornell Cooperative Extension, spends two weeks in the Youth Building every summer. She coordinates everything that happens in the building and supervises scores of kids who actually move into the second-floor dorm. “There’s the potential to house about 800 youth in this building,” she said. “We’re never that full, but it’s a busy place.”

Staff depend on the older kids to coordinate the activities and make certain the daily activities run smoothly. “There’s a lot of life skill and leadership development in the program,” Baldini pointed out. “If you walk around the building, all the exhibits are being led by teenagers. Teens take very high levels of leadership roles at the fair.”

Seventeen-year-old Katrina Blackwell had left her family’s Livingston County farm to supervise the makeshift barnyard at last year’s fair. The western end of the building, where Blackwell was stationed, is a particularly popular destination for fair patrons of all ages, who return every year to enjoy the frolicking ducklings, brightly colored hens and quail chicks bursting out of speckled eggs.

Blackwell, in her 11th year in 4-H and her fifth at the fair, was enjoying her role as a teen assistant in her area. “Little kids love to hold the chicks,” Blackwell said, smiling. “They connect to the actual living things. We have to make sure that all the incubators are up and running, that they’re the right temperature, that the humidity’s right. We get the eggs in and make sure that there’s some that are going to hatch every day, so nobody misses out on the fun.”

A short distance away, aspiring reporters were scrambling through a busy day, digging for news stories at the fair as part of the 4-H journalism project that culminates with publication of a complete newspaper.

“I know there were a couple of kids who were interested in (journalism)” as a career, said editor Tonye Van Dunk, looking up from her keyboard. “They have mentioned that to me. I know I am. Some kids are in here just for the fun of it.”

Fair patrons touring the building learn quickly that today’s 4-H members are as likely to be found working on a computer as driving a tractor. “Traditionally 4-H was always very rural,” Baldini acknowledged. “Today 4-H is found in every setting, whether a city, town, country or whatever.”

Nassau County member Jonathon Suncar, 17, chose a decidedly modern project. “We’re using GPS to help people to see their houses using new technology to see how satellites work,” he said. “Me and my dad are into computers. We like to keep up with technology. So much is changing. I’ve had over 30 customers. They’ve never seen their house from space. To be able to see your house from space is amazing technology.”

Younger kids start out with simpler projects, like the trio from Monroe County who had set up an assembly line of household ingredients to make homemade Silly Putty and the team from Orange County whose presentation on bird watching was fun for all ages. Ten-year-old Nicky Paradies gave an enticing pitch to get passers-by to peruse his bird picture book, although he felt compelled to add the disclaimer, “It’s only got some of the birds because there’s a lot of bird types.” Meanwhile, Paradies’ 9-year-old sister, Emma, was armed with a bird song identifier that actually played chirps, adding, “If you don’t want it to bother birds when you go out birding, there’s also little headphones.”

Suffolk County teens were also looking skyward with their project, a tetrahedron kite that was an adventure in both flight and teamwork. “Our group chose to do this project because it’s about science and technology and it’s fun,” said Pat Hubbard, the 4-H youth development director from the Long Island community. “Kids can take one of these cells and fly it or they can donate it as a community service to the larger one.” The tissue paper cells each consisted of four triangular faces, which theoretically would soar individually—but, like these dedicated kids, they’re more impressive when linked together.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York