When Rachel Wulff goes out at the beginning of each school year to recruit young people for 4-H, she is inevitably greeted over and over with the same look of surprise.

“We have 4-H here?” they ask.

“People are always surprised, because they think of 4-H as farm animals and agriculture,” Wulff said. “In reality, it’s an organization that is tailored to meet the needs of the youth in any particular area.”

It is true that 4-H began in the early 1900s in the Midwest with a focus on vocational agriculture, but the organization has since grown to become the largest youth development organization in the United States. 4-H currently serves more than 6 million youths in all 3,007 counties of the country and boasts more than 60 million alumni, including Wulff. She spent 12 years in the organization in her youth and continues her involvement now as Orleans Parish 4-H board president.

“There are actually 32 4-H clubs here in Orleans Parish, serving more than 300 youth ages 9 to 18,” Wulff said at the first annual 4-H Open House, held Nov. 20 at KIPP Central City Academy.

During a short presentation, 4-H Youth Development Agent Kyla Muse explained the benefits of club membership.

“4-H is great because the programs that we do have been chosen by the youth that are participating in them,” Muse said, noting that while Plaquemines Parish has the more traditional, agricultural focus, Orleans Parish has placed a strong focus on food.

“The kids learn all about healthy eating, including things like the salt and sugar levels in different foods,” she said.

The real draw to the organization, however, seems to be the wide variety of experiences it offers to urban youth, including the popular 4-H summer camp for fourth- through sixth-graders held each year in Pollock.

“A lot of our kids have never been out of Orleans Parish,” Muse said. “Suddenly, they’re out in nature canoeing, kayaking, doing archery.”

On-hand at the Open House were about a dozen current 4-H students ready to extol the virtues of 4-H life, including 13-year-old Devi Fuller, who’s been a 4-H member for three years.

“For me, my favorite thing is camp,” she says. “Last year I cried when I had to leave. I still have friends I made there.”

For others, like 18-year-old Troy Ray, the biggest benefit was found closer to home.

“The best thing has been getting the chance to help local families,” said Ray, who joined 4-H in Broadmoor seven years ago. His two sisters followed him the next year. “For instance, this year we’ll be providing needy families with turkeys and lots of food.”

Ray credits his participation in 4-H with helping him become a better public speaker. “I could never have spoken like this in front of a group before,” he told the open house gathering.” He said he feels the need to speak up, though, in an effort to give other kids the same great experience he has had.

“My club is small,” he said. “The thing is, people just don’t know about us.”

Although 4-H is inexpensive — just $10 annual dues — and provides a wide range of experiences from tours of the State Capitol building, to learning about the coastal wetlands, membership remains low.

“Our funding levels are down; we don’t have the grants we used to,” Muse said. “Which means we have to be even better stewards of our money, and we have to recruit. We’re definitely in a growth zone right now.”

For more information on 4-H Orleans Parish, contact Kyla Muse at kmuse@agcenter.lsu.edu or (504) 658-2900.