The one year she tried to show an animal at the fair, she entered her mouse in the small-animal competition and got bit.
So she stuck with a family tradition — refinishing or redecorating a piece of furniture as a project for the county fair.
Ten years ago, Riley Steimel’s decision to join 4-H was following a family tradition. Her parents, aunts and sister all participated in the Johnson County 4-H program.
Over the years, Steimel, 18, has learned to strip tables of old finish and stain, sand them down and paint or revarnish them. Some of the tables she’s refinished were her mom’s or aunts’ 4-H projects years ago.
Steimel said her favorite project was a cabinet. She spent hours painting it gray and then using crackle glaze over the top to give it an antiqued look. Over the years, she has learned to bake bread, make fruit spread out of peaches and mangoes, and develop an eye for a good photograph.
She participated in 4-H for 10 years because of the pride she feels in learning, competing and carrying on the family tradition, she said.
“I’ve gotten to learn so many things,” she said. “I didn’t want to stop learning from 4-H.”
She joined 4-H at age 8 and began trying out the different competitions the organization offers at the Johnson County fair. She tried sewing and cake decorating. She made a family genealogy. She took photographs. She showed cattle from her family farm and pulled up crops, such as corn, by the roots to enter into crop competitions.
This year, Steimel is one of 50 Johnson County 4-H’ers leaving the program after sticking with it for all 10 years she was eligible to participate. Having about 50 4-H’ers stay involved in the county’s program for all 10 years has been about average for the past five years, said Lori Walker, spokeswoman for the local Purdue Extension office.
Overall, about 1,200 children participate in 4-H each year, but some drop out in middle school or high school because of school sports and other extracurricular activities vying for their time, said Ashley Schultz, 4-H director for the local Purdue Extension office.
Many 4-H’ers stay for 10 years because they like the variety of programs, she said.
The organization’s project competitions have adapted over time to match children’s changing interests. They range from building with Legos to photography, which is the category that often draws the most entries, she said.
The older 4-H’ers also like the opportunities for leadership they get the longer they participate, such as counseling at annual 4-H camps and volunteering as ambassadors, who go to the local elementary schools to teach younger children about 4-H, she said. Some of the young 4-H’ers are counting down the years until they’re old enough to be camp counselors, she said.
Getting a leadership role within the organization, such as an ambassador, a camp counselor or a member of Junior Leaders, keeps them motivated to stay involved, she said. Many of the older 4-H’ers also help the younger children with their livestock in the barns, giving them more experience with leadership, she said.
“I think they like having the opportunity to lead in the community,” Schultz said.
Finishing projects, learning new skills and enjoying the friends they meet though the organization are among the reasons two teens have stayed all 10 years.
For Casey Campbell, 18, of Franklin, the friends she has made, her desire to show cows and the fun of spending days with friends and family at the fair kept her going back.
Both Campbell and Steimel enjoyed helping with a 4-H day camp this summer for youngsters ages 6 to 12, which introduced the children to 4-H projects such as Lego building and cookie decorating.
Campbell has been proud each year for completing the projects and showing her cattle, which required her to take on responsibilities such as feeding the calves nightly and bathing them daily throughout the summer.
She credits 4-H with helping her narrow her career interests to farming. Next year, she’ll study plants and soil in college, with a goal of possibly becoming a seed scientist who develops hybrid corn varieties.
Trying out various 4-H projects has helped her see what she likes and what she’s good at, she said.
“4-H is what you make out of it, and I made a big deal out of it,” she said. “You do learn things, even if (you) don’t realize you’re learning things.”