4‑H Alumni Spotlight: Elizabeth Riley

by Kittrina Thompson

Wood shavings, goat hair, and judging notebooks characterized my summers growing up, rather than the traditional sunscreen and bathing suits. I spent most of my time with Sarah, Ace, Geoffrey, and Habanero — all sheep or goats in our show string.

My 4‑H career spanned nearly every conceivable event and team. I sewed, judged livestock, went to 4‑H camp, learned to safely shoot BB guns, cured country hams, attended national conferences, and gave speeches. Dipping my toe into so many disciplines definitely made me a more well-rounded student, but my heart lied in the livestock program, specifically in Skillathon. I enjoyed that part of the livestock competitions the most because you relied solely on your ability and knowledge of animal science. Ten years of work and study culminated at the 2007 National 4‑H Skillathon Contest in Louisville, Kentucky. My sister and I were on our county team (not to mention coached by our mother!) representing Kentucky 4‑H and to our delight won the National Contest! This remains my proudest accomplishment as a 4‑H member.

Certainly the more traditional 4‑H projects continue to remain relevant and practical, but I learned some of my most important lessons in an initiative Christian County 4‑H took on called Youth in Governance (YIG). This program trained youth in advocacy and how government worked. Through our efforts, youth were placed as non-voting members of various boards and government agencies. We contended that the voice of youth was valuable and worth hearing. I was an ex-officio member of our local Economic Development Council (EDC), where I learned how industry impacts a community, how local governance works (or doesn’t), and most importantly in my mind, the value of caring. When I was a teenager, it certainly wasn’t “cool” to be passionate about something. Apathy was popular and being on the EDC as part of YIG showed me that people dedicated to a cause get things done in their community. That lesson has stayed with me and ultimately played a part in my decision to join the Peace Corps, where I’m still working with 4‑H in Jamaica. Our YIG group went to the Citizenship Washington Focus in 2004 and happened to be there during President Reagan’s funeral, certainly a memorable experience.

One of my most treasured memories in 4‑H is when I was an adult counselor at 4‑H camp. I always preferred to be in charge of the youngest girls, even though they were often plagued with homesickness; the drama and boy-craziness of the older girls hadn’t hit them yet, for which I was profoundly thankful. In Kentucky 4‑H camps, a Spirit Stick is awarded to the teams with the most “spirit” at each evenings’ activities; basically, the loudest ones. This always put my little ones at a disadvantage, but one night they pulled out all the stops and were awarded the Spirit Stick. To this day, I don’t know why it touched me so much, perhaps we’d been denied it so long, but I was unbelievably proud of those girls.

My 4‑H activities and animal science knowledge led me to receive my BS in Animal Science from the University of Kentucky and my MS, also in Animal Science, from Virginia Tech. The people I’ve met and friendships forged throughout the years have certainly enriched my life and made me a better person. I carry with me all the lessons that I learned through 4‑H, especially applicable as I continue my Peace Corps service in Jamaica. I don’t know what my next step in life will be, but you can bet 4‑H will be part of it.