Involvement with 4H yields lifetime honor

By Lynne Conner for Chronicle Media

Midway Marvels 4-H leader Elizabeth Russo displays her medal and certificate from the Illinois 4-H Hall of Fame. (Photo by Lynne Conner / for Chronicle Media)

When Elizabeth Russo attended her first 4-H meeting as an 8-year-old elementary school student, she couldn’t have imagined all the exciting opportunities and experiences the group would offer.

Russo, a 4-H leader for the past 17 years, was inducted into the Illinois 4-H Hall of Fame on Aug. 13 at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield. This lifetime honor recognizes Russo’s lifelong commitment to 4-H and celebrates the organization’s many unique youth opportunities.

Since its establishment over 100 years ago, the four H’s in its name stand for head, heart, hands and health. Members pledge to use the four H’s at every meeting for ‘clearer thinking, greater loyalty, larger service, and better living’ for their community, country, and world. The 4-H pledge, Russo said, is a framework for the life skills the organization promotes.

“We don’t have a cow in our garage,” Russo said. “Though 4-H has historically served a rural population, 4-H clubs today go beyond presenting agricultural projects and showing animals at the county fair. 4-H groups offer kids a chance to build leadership skills, gain confidence, and travel globally.”

Children and teens aged 5-18 are eligible to join a 4-H club, Russo said, and most clubs include children of different ages, which fosters leadership and mentoring.

“The kids run each 4-H meeting. They are the officers; they lead the meetings, and they make decisions for the group with the guidance of the adult leaders,” she said. “Every year, 4-H members also participate in group and individual projects that involve public speaking and collaborative learning. These projects are presented at county and state fairs.

“Doing a project as a group or individually gives the kids life skills in confidence building, presentation, and public speaking, which typically aren’t taught in the schools today,” Russo said. The Midway Marvels, a 4-H club that Russo started in 2010 and currently leads, did an international group project on Germany and, this year, began an environmental project.

“We started a group leadership project to establish a butterfly sanctuary on the grounds of Westminster Presbyterian Church, where we have our meetings,” Russo said. “The kids sold concessions at church-sponsored basketball games to raise money for buying plants and installing plant identification plaques in the sanctuary. One 4-H member did a metalworking project and made a butterfly garden stake, which will be placed in the finished sanctuary.”

The Midway Marvels presented the first part of the butterfly project at the 2023 Illinois State Fair. Once completed, the sanctuary will memorialize 17-year-old Ryan Sherman, a member of Westminster Church and the Midway Marvels who tragically died in a car accident this past January.

“Though the agricultural aspect of 4-H continues, the organization offers its members many modern themed individual projects,” Russo said. “Citizenship, Financial Futures (money management), entrepreneurship, 3D printing, drones, electricity, and the arts are just a few of the unique projects kids can explore as 4-H members.”

4-H members can also participate in summer camps throughout the Midwest.

Russo’s lifetime involvement continues a family tradition.

“My mom was a 4-H member and leader, which got me involved, and in turn, my children have been in 4-H throughout school, giving them some amazing opportunities,” she said. The Suzanne McMurray Scholarship Fund, established in memory of Russo’s mother, provides global opportunities for local 4-Hers.

“Through the 4-H International Exchange Program, I went to Japan as a high school student, my daughters each went to South Korea, and my son traveled to Norway.

My Japanese host family attended my wedding, and I have traveled to Japan with each of my kids.”

Russo’s husband, Tim, is the treasurer for the Winnebago County 4-H and Extension Foundation, which supports 4-H clubs and the Master Gardeners program in Winnebago County.

“Beyond all that 4-H offers, watching kids build friendships and learn new skills are the biggest advantages of being in 4-H,” Russo said. “We’re truly helping train the leaders of tomorrow.”

For more information on how to join 4-H contact Rebecca Gocken, program coordinator for 4-H and youth development at