BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Somerset County 4-H is well known for the popular three-day 4-H Fair held every August, but all year-round the 4-H Center is bustling with activity as many different youth clubs work on projects that embody the 4-H learn by doing approach.

Two dog clubs, called Woof and Wags, exemplified this 4-H spirit as they recently teamed up on a blanket drive to benefit local animal shelters.  

Woof held its first blanket drive last year, and this year invited Wags to collaborate to expand the effort. Club members gathered donations with the help of family, friends, neighbors and a collection box placed inside the 4-H lobby. 

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Susan Winters’ first grade class at Bradley Gardens Primary School also pitched in to help with gathering donations to support the drive.

In total, hundreds of items were collected, including sheets, blankets, towels, comforters and receiving blankets of all shapes and sizes.

On Feb. 27, Woof and Wags held a combined meeting to sort and pack the items. Woof club leader Denise Garber was the primary organizer of the project, and helped to coordinate where the donations will be distributed. 

The majority of the items collected will go to the Somerset Regional Animal Shelter and St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center, and some will go to local veterinarian’s offices, Garber said. Even cats will benefit, with some of the smaller, thinner blankets going to Capic Cats and Tabby’s Place Cat Sanctuary.

Garber’s Woof co-leader Pat Crew and Wags co-leaders Joann Gavigan and Katherine Gursky also helped to oversee and coordinate the project.  Throughout the year, the volunteer club leaders work with the club members and their dogs, teaching care and training with the goal that each dog will become a happy, well-mannered member of the family.

Beyond learning about dogs, Woof and Wags members and other 4-Hers gain important life skills through involvement in 4-H. Somerset County 4-H members learn patience, persistence, responsibility and the value of hard work. 

They are also encouraged to practice public speaking and engage in volunteer efforts.

For Woof and Wags, community service is a required part of the club. In addition to the blanket drive, Woof members also fulfilled this commitment through a shake-a-can effort to raise money for oxygen masks for emergency responders.

Woof and Wags members gain much more than learning to care for their pets, as they grow as individuals and gain confidence. This is especially true for 10-year-old Savanna Michalak, a fifth grader at Eisenhower Intermediate School and a Woof club member who helped to come up with the blanket drive idea.

In a personal statement that she wrote, Michalak described how working with her Golden Doodle, Sky, helped her to develop self-esteem and overcome bullying.

“I was born with a lazy left eye, which my eye doctor diagnosed as right intermittent exotropia,” she said. “My eye would wander off to the side without me knowing and without me being able to control it.”  

Throughout surgeries and therapy to treat her eye condition, Michalak also had to deal with bullying by classmates who teased her about her appearance.  

“School days were so long for me,” she said. “Many times in school I would go into the bathroom to hide my tears. I feared having to participate in class because I felt everyone was watching my eyes and laughing at me.”

A turning point came when Michalak was 7 years old and adopted her Golden Doodle. She and Sky joined the Little Woofers 4-H club, part of the 4-H prep level for students in kindergarten through third grade, and later advanced to Woof.

The companionship of Sky and the experience of being in 4-H have had a positive impact on Michalak.

“My 4-H leaders have so much confidence in me and Sky,” she said. “They have helped teach me how to talk to people that I don't know and show a sense of confidence. Training with Sky has given me confidence and built up my self-esteem.”

Woof and Wags are open to new members in grades 4 through 13, and their canine friends. Wags meets on Mondays and Woof meets on Thursdays at 7 p.m. at the Somerset County 4-H Center on Milltown Road.

Visit 4Histops.org to learn more about these clubs and many others that provide positive, enriching experiences for youth.