By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Looking back on the milestones of her life, Amber Norris is not surprised her childhood 4-H experiences have informed her career shift today.
A 25-year educator with Hillsborough County public schools, Norris late last year accepted her position as Hillsborough County 4-H extension agent. Her job now is to build the number of 4-H clubs and members countywide, for which she said she will draw upon her experiences with the youth development organization founded in 1902.
“That’s because 4-H truly gave me the foundation that I needed to be a successful citizen and to get my degree in education,” Norris said. “I know now the importance of the foundation, and I want to make sure that opportunity is provided for the kids in our community.”
To support 4-H and aid the recruitment effort, Norris invites parents, kids and the public at large to the Hillsborough County 4-H Youth Foundation annual strawberry U-pick, scheduled for 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Fancy Farms in Plant City at 3524 Futch Loop. The cost is a $3 donation for a unit of strawberries.
“The U-pick is an opportunity for 4-H students to conduct a service project, as they will be picking strawberries for area food banks,” Norris said. “Come out and meet the kids and leaders and ask your questions about 4-H.”
Founded with its roots deep in agriculture, 4-H today “focuses on whatever the child is most interested in,” Norris said. “There are projects that meet the interests of the child, anything from robotics to rocketry to animals, public speaking, citizenship, service learning, health, STEM education and more.”
As for 4-H expansion countywide, “the sky’s the limit,” Norris said. “We have 376 students currently in 4-H in a county school district that is the seventh-largest in the nation. Every child, from 5 to 18, I want them to be at least aware of 4-H and its mission to grow our youth and prepare them to be future leaders. That’s my goal.”
Norris brings to the task lessons learned as an assistant principal for nine years at Cimino and Brooker elementary schools, collectively. She taught fourth and fifth grade at Alafia and Cimino and was a district resource teacher for a character education grant for Title 1 schools.
Norris also was a 4-H parent. “I knew what type of adult my children would become when they learn the skills that 4-H has to offer; it truly did teach them what it takes to be successful and they are,” Norris said. “My daughter is an ICU nurse and my son works as a manager in the service department for heavy equipment.”
Following in her older sister’s footsteps, Norris said she started 4-H before age 5, tagging along to her sister’s meetings. When she was old enough to have her own 4-H membership, Norris said she focused on horses, public speaking, citizenship and service.
That love of horses remains, which Betty Jo Tompkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Soil and Water Conservation District, noted in her recommendation of Norris for 4-H extension agent.
“I’ve known Amber since she was a child, when she was an outstanding member of my 4-H club and participated in a wide range of programs, projects and activities,” Tompkins said. “Her professional career in the education field makes her an excellent choice, and she still maintains her interest in agriculture, as a national competitor on the horse show circuit.”
Tompkins said it is essential to increase 4-H membership countywide. Tompkins is a past president and board member for the Hillsborough County 4-H Foundation and past president of the Florida 4-H Foundation. She received the group’s Florida 4-H Lifetime Achievement Award and was inducted into its hall of fame.
“This is the critical issue, because 4-H is doing very, very well nationally but our numbers locally don’t reflect the wide range of activities available to kids,” Tompkins said. “The tendency when you talk about 4-H is to focus on agriculture products. But actually, 4-H has a myriad of programs, including those for citizenship, leadership, public speaking, all areas of STEM and virtually any kind of project you would be interested in.”
Indeed, of the 14 clubs listed in the 2022-23 Hillsborough 4-H directory, the South Shore 4-H Club focuses on dairy cows and livestock; the Alafia Kids 4-H Club in Riverview, on poultry, swine and beef; the Chautauqua 4-H Club in Riverview, on various interests.
Norris reiterated that a club can reflect the interests of its leaders and members, with an overriding mission that transcends subject matter.
Behind the 4-H moniker is the “head for clear thinking, heart for greater loyalty, hands for larger service and health for better living,” Norris said. “It’s about being a productive citizen, with leadership encompassing everything from taking care of yourself to taking care of your family, community, country and world.”
Norris said it takes two leaders to create a club “and it’s always best to start with a club that is currently doing the work of 4-H, to learn the process and mentor with a leader before stepping out on your own.” As Norris put it, “The more we combine our efforts, the stronger we’re going to be.”
For more, call Norris at Hillsborough County Extension Service, in partnership with the University of Florida, at 813-744-5519.