As a child growing up in Walnut Grove, Georgia--not the one Laura Ingalls Wilder made famous--Randie Gray loved horses. As an adult 4-H agent, she still loves horses, and she shares that love with her students.
Gray and her twin sister, Mandie, showed horses through the Newton County 4-H Horse Club. They also took riding lessons from Allison Hudson, who was the county's UGA Extension agent.
Now the 4-H agent in Hancock County, Gray introduces 4-H'ers to horses through visits to her farm, where she has 12 horses, four of which are kid-friendly.
"Horseback riding is my favorite--that's my thing," she said. "Most of the kids have never even touched a horse. The first time we went to the farm, they wouldn't get off the bus because I have little dogs."
Her Hancock County 4-H'ers have adjusted to horses, so much so that they participated in their first horse show last year.
"One particular student went from being too scared to go near the arena to jumping an 18-inch jump a year later," Gray said, with pride. "She now jumps on a little pony named 'Miss Sweet Alabama'--she's about 15 years old, but she loves to jump. They are cute as a button together."
Gray encourages her 4-H'ers to compete in district project achievement (DPA) because they can't do worse than she did.
"I did DPA on 'How to Trim Your Horse's Hooves' and it was the worst project ever. I cried all the way through it," said Gray, who now laughs while remembering the experience. "I tell my kids, 'If you will just get up there, I'll be proud of you.'"
The road that led Gray to Hancock County 4-H led her to a few other ventures first. After high school she attended Georgia College, but later changed her focus and completed a two-year program through Novell, a company that provides workplace software to companies across the globe. "I became a certified engineer and worked for a computer manufacturer for more than 10 years," she said.
When she and her husband, Pete, moved to Sparta, Georgia, she opened an insurance company for a few years. In 2007 she saw an employment ad for a 4-H program assistant. "I always loved 4-H, so I applied," she said.
To earn the 4-H agent position, she took night classes at Georgia College and graduated with a degree in sociology last summer.
Through the school system, Gray brings 4-H programming to about 700 students. To provide a more intimate experience, Hancock County 4-H offers an after-school program three days a week; Mondays are reserved for riding horses, Wednesdays are for archery lessons and Fridays for competition preparation.
Gray enjoys the in-county events most, as many of the 4-H'ers in her county don't have the ability to participate in out-of-county events.Â
"My husband taught me archery, so now I teach the 4-H'ers. Our archery team has a lot of fun, but we can't compete on the district level because we don't have the funds to travel," she said. "We are the poorest county in Georgia. To go to 4-H camp, a parent would have to spend the better part of a month's paycheck."
During the summer months, Gray plans events at the 4-H office. Three days a week there are scheduled events and one day a week is set aside for a field trip.
"On Tuesdays we have a healthy cooking class. I took the kids to my farm last year and everything they cooked had to come from the garden or the chicken coop," she said.
Gray tries not to focus on the club's numbers, but on the individual children in the 4-H program. "I hope that we are really making a difference to them," she said.
One student influenced by Hancock 4-H was Michael Woods (michaelkwoods.com) of Sparta, who became a member of Clovers and Company and was featured on the ABC show "Duets" with Jennifer Nettles, also a Clovers and Company alum.
"Michael won at state competition," said Gray. "He was Hancock County's first winner in 50 years!"
Gray said Woods was awarded several college scholarships based on his leadership projects and academic achievements. "He was invited to be on 'American Idol,' but he decided to go to college. He was awarded a full scholarship to Vassar College in New York and the Gates Foundation will pay for this graduate studies," she said. "He plans to be a lawyer and do pro bono work with 4-H."
Woods stated numerous times that a military career was his only option, Gray said. "Being in 4-H completely changed his viewpoint," she said. "Now he comes to visit in classes and tells the students what they need to do to get ready to apply for college."
Gray beams with pride over Michael Woods--just one former 4-H'er from her Hancock County 4-H program.
Visit the UGA Extension Hancock County website for more information about local programs.
Published March 19, 2015
"I did DPA on 'How to Trim Your Horse's Hooves' and it was the worst project ever. I cried all the way through it. I tell my kids, 'If you will just get up there, I'll be proud of you.'"
- Randie Gray, Hancock County 4-H Agent