As a teenager, Norma Roberts was a 4-H member in Eunice, but dropped out because she wasn’t interested in livestock.
No one was more surprised than she when she made a career of 4-H, not only becoming Louisiana’s first female state 4-H director, but also a driving force in making Louisiana 4-H more than just animals and agriculture.
For her accomplishments, Roberts will be inducted into the National 4-H Hall of Fame on Friday at the National 4-H Conference Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
“My mission in 4-H when I started in Shreveport was to make things available to kids that lived in more urban areas,” Roberts said of her first 4-H assignment.
Since her retirement, Roberts has stayed connected to 4-H by continued service as a volunteer 4-H leader for a club for dyslexic children. Roberts is also a long-time and much-loved math friend volunteer for students at Magnolia Woods Elementary School as part of the Volunteers in Public Schools program, said Joan Pennington, who coordinates the volunteer program at Magnolia Woods.
4-H is the largest youth-based organization in the U.S., and the Louisiana program is administered by the LSU Agricultural Center.
Roberts’ success as an agent led to a promotion as state 4-H specialist in Baton Rouge, where she coordinated 4-H Short Course —– now called 4-H University —– trips, awards and state and national leadership conferences. During that time, she also earned two post-graduate degrees from LSU.
“I got my doctorate in curriculum and instruction, and I thought that would help with the design of project materials,” Roberts said. “Well, it did.”
She led efforts to revise existing project materials and create new ones. Roberts chaired the national Citizenship Literature Development Committee and played a key role in authoring a new citizenship project book used nationally.
When Roberts became the first woman to lead Louisiana 4-H in 1989, it was a challenge.
“There weren’t too many of us,” she said, referring to female directors nationwide. “It was a man’s world.”
Despite facing some initial resistance, Roberts was gradually able to guide Louisiana 4-H to a broader array of projects.
“It became evident that we needed projects that appealed to kids that couldn’t be on a farm,” she said. “It slowly evolved to where we added things like photography, automotive and dog care.”
Roberts coordinated 4-H Short Course for 21 years. During that time, attendance at the state event, which included competitions and educational programs on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, jumped to record high numbers — more than 2,000 at one point.
Roberts said her favorite emphasis was youth citizenship and leadership. She started the first Challenge Camp, which taught 12- and 13-year-olds how to positively affect their communities. Additionally, she worked with junior leadership boards and coordinated a program called Citizenship Louisiana Focus.
“I’ve seen so many young people that have been involved in 4-H and have gone on to be leaders all over the state,” Roberts said. “They learned not to just sit back and take what comes but to change things.”
When the national 4-H Congress in Chicago was no longer offered, Roberts was part of the Southern Region committee that successfully resuscitated the leadership event, which is now held in Atlanta. She also coordinated annual 4-H leadership trips to events like the national conference in Washington, D.C.
Even in retirement, Roberts continues as a 4-H leader, helping children with dyslexia in a 4-H Club at a Baton Rouge school. Although she had dropped out of 4-H as a child, Roberts chose a profession that would help make the club more relevant and rewarding to a greater diversity of youth.
“I was pushing, but I can’t really make any great claims to have changed the world,” Roberts said. “You just do what you can do.”