One of the most unique youth programs in Union County has a very familiar name: 4-H. Many of us know about 4-H clubs from movies, books, or trips to rural county fairs where youngsters display their skill in raising farm animals. But 4-H thrives right here in our urban communities, thanks to the efforts of volunteers.

The 4-H pledge of head, heart, hands, and health is meant to encourage young people to contribute to society by developing their own capabilities. It helps them to think independently, to feel connected with other people, to pursue a skill or passion, and to value their physical well being.

Union County 4-H has almost two dozen active clubs for students in first through 12th grades. They reflect a good deal of common ground with 4-H's rural roots, including gardening and animal care. They also cover popular interests of today such as digital photography, environmental awareness, and even anime, the new graphic art form.

Along the way, 4-H members learn how to manage a real-life organization and achieve goals. They learn how to cooperate, share, and brainstorm together. Volunteer leaders and parents guide activities for younger members and help them organize community service projects. Older 4-H members run their own meetings and plan their own events with help from an adult volunteer advisor.

These civics lessons are the foundation of all 4-H clubs, and they are perhaps the most valuable gift that a 4-H volunteer can give. At every step of the way, our 4-H club members learn how to reason out problems and work through differences in a thoughtful and respectful way, to achieve something good for each other and for the community.

When members of the 4-H Archery Club recently attended a Freeholder meeting, they were proud to know that their own organization adhered to the same rules and procedures. The citizens who attended the meeting provided these young people with a fine example of active civic engagement, and that's something we can all be proud of, too.

A new 4-H season starts up with the school year, so now is a perfect time to find out how to become an adult volunteer, by contacting Union County's 4-H agent Jim Nichnadowicz at 908-654-9854 or nichnadowicz@njaes.rutgers.edu.