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HUCKABY: Georgia cannot afford to lose 4-H

There's that great scene in "Gone with the Wind" where Rhett has come back from Europe with a pretty new bonnet for the recently widowed Scarlett O'Hara Kennedy. She hesitates before trying it on, not knowing which end of the bonnet is the front and which is the back. Rhett says, with obvious disgust, something like, "This war has stopped being a joke when a woman like you doesn't know how to wear the latest Paris fashions."

Well, I'm about like Rhett Butler. This recession has quit being a joke when the state of Georgia can no longer afford to pay for education. The proposed state budget released this week will absolutely decimate higher education in this state — and that's not even the worst of it. One of the proposals being seriously tossed about is eliminating the 4-H Club in Georgia.

The hell you say!

Georgia is just about out of money. Georgia apparently cannot afford to pay to maintain higher education. We can, of course, continue to support bass fishing and horse barns at the state fairgrounds and build a College Football Hall of Fame, but you have to have your priorities in order.

All of the schools in the University System of Georgia have been instructed to come up with a plan detailing how they would deal with these proposed budget cuts for the 2011 fiscal year. One of the ways the University of Georgia plans to deal with the problem is to "Eliminate all Georgia 4-H Programs; this will eliminate 116 filled positions including 94 county 4-H agents."

The savings? $6,304,861. If this measure is adopted it would also "require the closure of five 4-H facilities across the state, including Rock Eagle."

Can you imagine a Georgia without 4-H? I can't. Can you imagine a Georgia without Rock Eagle? I can't.

Georgia was a pioneer in the 4-H program. It traces its roots to a 1904 campout in Newton County and provides services to more than 156,000 young people. The four H's, in case you are a little rusty, stand for head, heart, hand and health, and 4-H'ers pledge "my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service and my health for better living to my club, my community, my country and my world." Their motto, in case you are interested, is to "make the best better." These sound like pretty important goals in an age where the very qualities the 4-H Club strives to impart to its members seem to be in short and dwindling supply among too many of our young people.

And unlike many of the programs that receive financial support from we, the people, 4-H is effective. There are active clubs in 158 of Georgia's 159 counties, and 4-H reaches young people of all shapes, sizes and colors, from rural, urban, suburban and communities that are in between. At a time when the president of the United States has declared a "dropout crisis" and asked for $980 million to combat this growing problem, 92 percent of 4-H'ers in Georgia graduate from high school. The figure is 78 percent for the general population.

Would these students have graduated without 4-H? Maybe. But I'd hate to risk finding out.

I have a vested interest in 4-H. All three of my children were 4-H'ers. We made speeches, showed rabbits, trained dogs, learned to organize and allocate our time, and to be a part of a program larger than us. I have great kids. Would they have turned out great without 4-H? Maybe. But I would hate to have had to risk it.

There are lots and lots of other great kids involved in 4-H as well; kids like Mary Allison Latham, a ninth-grader from Newton County who was recently highlighted as a "Fantastic 4-H'er" on the state 4-H Web site. Mary Allison is involved in a long, long list of activities that include the performing arts, technology, leadership roles on the local, district and state levels and service to the community in the projects like recycling and preserving our environment. Multiply Mary Allison's accomplishments by 156,000 and you'll get an idea of why 4-H is so vital to our state.

And I'd feel this way even if I weren't an official groupie of Clovers and Company, the Georgia 4-H performing troupe that helped launch the careers of Grammy winners Jennifer Nettles and Hillary Lindsey.

I don't know who to call or what to do to help save 4-H, but I am going to find out and I am going to do it. I hope you will, too. The people we entrust with making such decisions on our behalf seem to think that we can't afford $6.3 million for 4-H Clubs.

I say that $6.3 million is a bargain, and that we cannot afford not to have 4-H.

Darrell Huckaby is a local educator and author. E-mail him at dhuck08@bellsouth.net.