Sumter County 4-H project teaches agriculture to children with special needs

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A Sumter County University of Georgia Cooperative Extension 4-H program to teach students with special needs about agriculture was a soaring success last year, however, it may fall to Earth if program administrators can’t secure funding to fuel it.

Sumter County 4-H Agent Crystal Perry hopes that she can secure additional funding this year to expand the 4-H ROCKETS (Reaching Our Community through Kindness, Education, Togetherness and STEM) project, which uses STEM-related activities in the classroom to help students with disabilities to learn in a safe setting where they feel included. The program empowers the youths to build positive relationships, increase their knowledge in science disciplines and enrich their educational learning experience.

“If you look at research it is shown that students with disabilities and their families may be reluctant to participate in after-school activities because of what they think their abilities or limitations may be. It was more intentional to reach this audience by going directly to them,” Perry said.

Prior to the start of the ROCKETS project in 2018, Sumter County 4-H surveyed the youth who participated in the program and found that 78.9% washed their vegetables before cooking or eating them with their families and 50.8% made vegetable recipes as part of their meals. Those numbers increased to 83% and 63.3% respectively after the students completed the project.

The students exhibited a change in behavior and attitude towards vegetables after attending the classroom sessions and maintaining garden beds at two schools in Americus, Georgia — Furlow Charter School and Sumter County Intermediate School.

With the help of Sumter County Extension, youths at both schools designed, cultivated, watered, weeded and harvested vegetables like broccoli, carrots, collards, greens and onions. The students also tended the school garden throughout the year.

It was an eye-opening experience for everyone involved, especially the instructors.

“The fun thing to me was seeing the children’s eyes light up when we came. They looked forward to our visits. That made me feel good as an educator,” said Mitzi Parker, Sumter County Family and Consumer Sciences agent. “The children loved going outside and tending their garden and weeding their garden. They really enjoyed getting out into nature. That was a big deal to them.”

In addition to learning the different parts of vegetable plants and which parts of the plants produce the vegetables, Parker emphasized the nutritional value of each of the vegetables the students grew. Using her knowledge of the MyPlate initiative, which emphasizes the five main food groups in a healthy diet, Parker taught ROCKETS students how to read the nutritional labels on vegetable cans and how to create a balanced meal.

Bill Starr, Sumter County Agriculture and Natural Resources agent, used the hands-on gardening aspect of the project to teach safe agricultural practices, including proper use of gardening tools and equipment.

ROCKETS also provided service opportunities for Sumter County 4-H members like high school freshman Paris Eberhart. Eberhart designed her District Project Achievement (DPA) project to focus on the educational component of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) and her work with special-needs students at the local elementary school.

“I went to the elementary school and I helped them do a project of making edible Play-Doh for all the elementary students,” Eberharbt said. “My project in DPA was on art, I thought about how this was very easy and simple for all students to participate in. They learned the importance of washing their hands and measuring food.”

The ROCKETS program was initially funded by a $12,000 UGA Extension and Innovation grant. However, for the program to continue and grow, additional funding is needed, specifically to replenish the soil, seeds and plants for the gardens.

“This is a passion of Crystal’s and a skillset. She saw the need in the school system to provide more opportunities for youths with disabilities. The school system was hungry for it. It was a beautiful opportunity that she took full advantage of,” said Melinda Miller, Southwest District 4-H program development coordinator.

For more information about the program, see the Sumter County Extension website. To find the UGA Extension office near you, call 1-800-ASK-UGA1.

Clint Thompson is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences based in Tifton.
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