Longtime volunteer Sarita McCaw helps 4-H navigate changes

McCaw earned an induction into the state 4-H Hall of Fame for her work with the club.

Sarita McCaw shows off her 4-H suspenders, which have pins commemorating her years of service.

Sarita McCaw shows off her 4-H suspenders, which have pins commemorating her years of service. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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WALLA WALLA — From livestock to lawn mower engines, 4-H has evolved to cover a lot of territory. One of the largest youth programs in the nation, 4-H has a long history, but has managed to change along with the times.

Locally, 4-H has benefited tremendously from the talents of Sarita McCaw, who has been dedicated to the organization for half a century. Like 4-H, she is ever green and ever growing, all the while continuing to be creative.

4-H officially started in 1902 with the formation of youth clubs to integrate new scientific findings with agriculture through county extension offices. Initially focused on farm families, it has expanded over the years. Now, projects for 4-H clubs cover all kinds of topics, said McCaw.

“It’s no longer cows and cookies,” she said. “They started learning about small engine repair, learn how to keep the lawn mower going. We also had a class on edible weeds. You can eat stingy nettles if they’re cooked — and violets, both leaves and blossoms, are good in salads.”

Science and other practical projects and demonstrations have always been a big part of 4-H. For example, McCaw started a popular knitting group, the Knitwits.

“We had kids from all over,” she said. “We had 24 members who learned to knit sweaters.”

Believing the inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary could excel at handcrafts, she helped to start a 4-H club at the institution when she worked there for Walla Walla Community College. It became the nation’s first 4-H club in a penitentiary.

“There was a lot of talent in those residents,” she said.

“At one point we wanted to do something that would be put in the national display. We wanted to carve a Washington state map but at that time there were too many restrictions. They thought that if the residents made a map, they’d want to escape. So, instead of cities’ names, we used pictures of crops on the map. Eastern Washington had wheat, and so forth,” she said.

The penitentiary-based club’s associate leaders were residents of the facility. Its members benefited from their 4-H experience, she said.

“It was a very reciprocal kind of thing,” she said. “They learned they had some worth and value.”

McCaw likes the concept of win-win — everyone succeeding and rising to their highest level — and incorporates it into all of her activities. When people enjoy what they’re doing, they are more likely to benefit from the experience.

“Part of learning is to find joy in what you’re doing. 4-H has a much wider expanse now. Electronics, banking, cheese making, bread baking — all kinds of things. Find out about things. Get a book, look at recipes. If you have an idea, move forward with it,” she said.

McCaw said today’s young people are different than they were 50 years ago, especially their modes of communication, such as texting, that don’t involve actually talking with someone. She believes in the importance of interpersonal communication.

“These kinds of projects encourage young people to really communicate,” she said of 4-H’s activities. “Put your phone away. These projects encourage communicating eyeball to eyeball — verbal communication skills. In 4-H you have to actually do a project, then get up in front of the club and do a demonstration.”

Learning to be comfortable with public speaking is essential, according to McCaw.

“Get those kids up and get them talking — you have something to say,” McCaw said.

She put in years of volunteering, and twice worked as part of Washington state’s 4-H leadership council. She initiated their fundraising auction, encouraging local groups to send in their items. The auction is a fun activity that works to benefit the organization.

“It’s an opportunity to give,” she said.

“The funniest thing — you know that 4-H is a part of the WSU Extension program — the funniest thing happened when somebody donated a U of W sweatshirt. The person who got it tore it up in shreds. The lady who donated it wasn’t happy but it was real funny,” she said.

In recognition of her decades of service to the organization, McCaw was inducted in 2001 into the Washington State 4-H Hall of Fame.

Despite budget cuts to the extension service, she foresees 4-H continuing its valuable work with youth.

“As long as there is adequate leadership, there is no place to go but up,” McCaw said.

Karlene Ponti is the U-B specialty publications writer. She can be reached at 509-526-8324 or karleneponti@wwub.com.

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