Quick — what tops a trip to Niagara Falls or taking in a Blue Jays game on a nice summer day?
Full points if you answered, ‘Seeing how the Prairies was laid out in one-mile square blocks.’
That was, indeed, one of the highlights for nine members of Ontario’s Hastings County 4-H Exchange Club when they came to visit central Alberta this summer.
“The kids were just so impressed with how our land is laid out,” said Janet Niehaus, a leader with the Battle River 4-H Beef Club and one of the organizers of an exchange that saw two groups of 4-H’ers host each other this summer.
“In Ontario, they have concessions — long strips running down to water somewhere — while we have sections and townships. That was a highlight. A lot of the kids thought that was the best part of their trip.”
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Ontario 4-H’ers got their geography lesson in two-seater airplanes courtesy of the local flying club (of which Niehaus’s husband is a member).
Still, the visitors revelled in the wide-open Prairie landscape.
“We had kids who really wanted to go horseback riding,” said Niehaus, whose two grandchildren were part of the exchange.
“And they thought it was just the most wonderful thing — the wide-open spaces, they could ride for miles and not hit a fenceline.”
Niehaus only learned of the 4-H Canada Club to Club Exchange program — which pairs groups of kids aged 12 to 17 from Eastern and Western Canada — in January.
“Two ladies from the Hanna area were speaking about it and they were very passionate about it. So I thought, ‘I’m going to go home and make that application.’”
There was just enough time to get the club’s approval and submit an application. Once accepted by 4-H Canada, the kids and their families launched an intensive period of fundraising starting in March. The cost is only $150 per participant and 4-H Canada (thanks to government funding) covers airfare while participants’ families are ‘twinned,’ with each hosting the other. However, that still leaves the costs of local travel; admission to parks, shows, and events the group wants to take in; plus meals and sundries when travelling — items that typically total around $10,000.
Clubs generally find a host of would-be donors in their community, but it’s still a lot of work.
“One of my top two tips is to get on it right away because the fundraising is tricky and it’s hard to come up with that much money in a short period of time,” said Niehaus. “And we wanted the kids to do something — not just ask for donations, but do work in exchange for money. There was no free ride. They had to work for this, and that takes time.”
That included cleaning up at the local landfill, working the kitchens at a pair of Canada Day celebrations, and an online auction (the kids baked and offered to do chores for donations).
“The other tip is to have someone on your committee who is good at computers and social media,” she said.
A considerable amount of information has to be provided to 4-H, along with security checks, co-ordinating with a 4-H youth service leader, organizing a project (clubs do a project on each other’s area), and many other smaller but vital tasks (such as getting permission slips for those airplane flights).
“Someone has to make sure that everything gets done and is in order. It’s a lot of work.”
For the Battle River group, it also meant reaching out to other clubs. Although Battle River has 33 members, most had something or other planned at some point in the two 10-day-long exchanges. So three kids from the Irma 4-H Beef Club and one from Hastings Coulee Beef Club ended up joining six kids from the Battle River club.
“You know how it is,” said Niehaus. “When it comes right down to, ‘we are going to go on these days,’ so many members are busy. So we just put it out there locally and these other clubs were more than happy to join in.”
The visiting Ontario 4-H’ers also got to see some classic Alberta locales, starting their trip with a two-day tour of the Rockies and the Badlands, and later visiting a large ranch that finishes cattle on grass and the Hardisty oil tank farm.
Along with Niagara Falls and the Blue Jays game, the Albertans got to see robotic milkers at a dairy farm and visit both a cheese and chocolate factory.
“It’s like a twofold program,” said Niehaus. “Yes, you get to go somewhere and see what they have. But you also get to put your best foot forward and the kids were just so proud to show them what we have.”
Her highlight was watching the kids bond. Although they came from four different clubs and two provinces, and had a wide age range, any differences quickly melted away.
“After the Lougheed Fair, we went to one of the host families for a potluck supper,” she said. “Afterwards, the parents are sitting around the fire and we looked over and there were all of the kids sitting on the trampoline just talking. Just having a session. After about 20 minutes or so, they’d break up and do other things.
“But at various times, you’d see them doing that again. I asked my granddaughter what they talked about and she said, ‘Oh just whatever. We just talk and everybody offers their opinion.’ And I thought, ‘That is just so awesome. You don’t see that very often.’”
It’s an experience that Niehaus would like to see others have.
“We’re trying to start up an exchange club so anybody in central Alberta who is interested in doing an exchange can join,” she said. “So often clubs are small and they just don’t have the manpower to do one.”
Detailed information on the 4-H Club to Club Exchange can be found at the 4-H Canada website. The application deadline for the 2019 program is Jan. 14. Those interested in the exchange club being launched for central Alberta can contact 4-H specialist Yvonne Yaremcio at 403-742-7547 or [email protected].