COLUMBIA — Ten-year-old Ella Guidotti admitted anticipation had made sleep difficult the night before. But if she was the least bit drowsy, it certainly didn’t show. Standing on the north steps of the State House, the Lexington County local had bright eyes and a wide smile on her face as South Carolina 4-H Legislative Day got set to begin.
“I was really excited because we were going to meet the legislators that supported us at 4-H, and that’s a really big thing — because if they didn’t support us, we might not have the 4-H program in every county,” she said.
The event was a chance for 4-H members from across South Carolina to share their stories of success in the club with state legislators, and more than 425 4-Hers, family members and Clemson Cooperative Extension agents made the trip to the capital city on March 13.
Few had better stories to tell than Nakel Pinckney from Jasper County, whose family name carries significant meaning both in 4-H circles and the halls of the State House.
The cousin of the late Clementa Pinckney, Nakel knew little about 4-H until the former state senator was among nine people killed in a 2015 shooting at the Charleston church that he pastored.
A 4-H alumnus himself, the Rev. Pinckney is the namesake of the 4-H Clementa Pinckney Leadership Conference, held annually on Clemson University’s campus.
“I was in ninth grade when he died and didn’t know anything about 4-H until I heard about the Pinckney Leadership Conference,” said Nakel, a high school senior. “When I heard about it, all my teachers tried to get me to go, and I went. I didn’t know my (county 4-H Extension) agent at the time, but she paid for me to go even though I did not know her at all. I went there for a week during the summer, and I got the chance to meet a lot of new friends and get to know the 4-H experience.”
While his introduction to 4-H was borne out of tragedy, Nakel said it has been nothing short of a blessing. “4-H is family,” he said. “4-H has helped to prepare me for the future. 4-H has helped me to meet a lot of my new friends and helped me to do things that I wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do in Jasper County. It really has prepared me for the future and just to face the challenges that life brings.”
A common misconception is that 4-H is all about agriculture — just cows and plows — but while it still has those traditional roots, the Pinckney Leadership Conference is one example of how it offers programs in other areas such as leadership skills, healthy living and science.
Lindsey Scott from Saluda County was introduced to 4-H by accepting an invitation from a friend at school to tag along to dairy judging.
“I went to practice that day and the next afternoon was the state competition,” she said. “Our team won third place and went to nationals. Going to nationals I really enjoyed 4-H and learned what 4-H was all about.”
But while the high school senior came to 4-H through agriculture, she said her focus has shifted to healthy living. She’s also learned valuable lessons on leadership.
And those lessons have clearly paid off, as Lindsey kicked off 4-H Legislative Day with a welcome address as the South Carolina 4-H Teen Council president.
“It’s hard to put it all into words because 4-H has meant so much to me,” she said. “It’s been the biggest part of my life. 4-H has inspired me in so many ways. I’ve made so many friends here that I’m always going to cherish.”
Scott was eager to share her 4-H success story not only with her fellow club members, but also the state legislators who helped make it possible.
“I’m excited to see all these 4-Hers and what they have accomplished and hear their stories and be able for these 4-Hers to tell their stories to these legislators,” she said.
The youth development arm of the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service, South Carolina 4-H has more than 100,000 young participants from across the state annually. Its programs cover animal science, agriculture, science, engineering, natural resources, healthy living, leadership and more.
Participants in 4-H are twice as likely to be civically active, live healthier lives and participate in science, engineering and computer technology programs in schools, according to a Tufts University study.
Rep. Justin Bamberg of House District 90 in Bamberg, Barnwell and Colleton counties shared a simple mantra with the 4-Hers gathered on the State House steps: “Knowledge is the new money. Get you some.”
“I want you to look around your group here, and you see many different people from different walks of life,” Bamberg told them. “Everybody looks unique, but all of you have one thing in common, and that is that you have placed yourself in a position for new opportunities, to obtain new knowledge, and your participation in 4-H is something that… with time you’ll realize that you’re taking steps that some of your peers aren’t.”
Sen. Danny Verdin also addressed the club members and said he’d already been visited by local 4-H clubs from his district in Laurens County that morning.
“It reminds me of the purpose of the day that was related to us from Mr. Pinckney,” he said. “I know you’ve accomplished it: to come here to impact those of us who are charged with making public policy here in the state. It is very beneficial for us to see you, to hear from you, to understand the work you’re doing in community service, the development of skills, the attributes of life that you are inculcating today that will go with you through your life here and service to us. You will be standing in adult shoes very soon, so thank you for your preparation.”