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50 years of 4-H: One volunteer makes it her mission to serve youth and community

joyce smith poses with a mercer county sign

VIOLA, Ill. –  When Joyce Smith’s children joined 4-H in the 1970s, little did she know it would be the start of a half century journey. Now, Mercer County 4-H is celebrating the 50th year of this dedicated and passionate volunteer for her work uplifting countless young people, putting them on a path toward success, and helping to shape them into leaders and community builders.

“Joyce is such an amazing asset to Mercer County,” says Tracy Fowler-Pestle, University of Illinois Extension 4-H program coordinator. “Her devotion and love for her community and the people in it is evident in everything she does. Not only is she a fountain of knowledge, but she also encourages and lifts people up just when they need it.”

Smith’s children eventually landed in the 4-H Saddle Teens Club, which focuses on horses and community service. It was a perfect fit for the Smith family. Joyce would eventually lead the club, continuing the tradition of 4-H members pledging their hands to larger service.

“Youth must learn to give back, learn about their community needs, and about their community leaders,” Smith says. “So when they become adults, they will continue to be involved in community service and leadership. It gives them life skills.” 

Over the years, club members have given back to Mercer County communities through a variety of grant-funded service projects. They planted more than 100 trees and shrubs around the Winola Elementary school to provide a wind break. Their Bethany Friends project supported local homeless teens, and their elementary school Pen Pals reading program worked to improve literacy rates.

Under Smith’s leadership, Illinois 4-H has awarded the club many Excel Awards for community service, along with many Club of the Year Awards.

4-H leader and Horse Bowl Coach Melanie Neuleib-Zimmerman says Joyce has been a pillar of the Mercer County 4-H program for 50 years and has influenced so many young people and families along the way.

“She had a huge impact on my sister Erin and me,” Neuleib-Zimmerman. “It’s because of her and my other leaders that I signed up as a leader as soon as I aged out of the program. Joyce has always been a cheerleader for all youth in her group and pushed them outside of their comfort zones to learn, grow and evolve into today’s leaders.”

What’s kept Smith going as a volunteer through the decades is the people. The 4-H members and their families keep her young.

“Older adults talk about health issues and doctor’s appointments, with kids, it is a whole different conversation,” Smith says. “They make me think, use my brain. Every now and again, you get a little note from one of those adult ‘kids’ thanking you that fills your heart with joy.”

The Royal Neighbors of America recently recognized Smith with an “Outstanding Women Volunteers” award.

ABOUT ILLINOIS 4-H: Illinois 4-H is the flagship youth development program of University of Illinois Extension and administered through the College of Agriculture, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences. 4-H grows true leaders, youth who are empowered for life today and prepared for a career tomorrow. The hands-on approach in 4-H gives young people guidance, tools, and encouragement, and then puts them in the driver’s seat to make great things happen. Independent research confirms the unparalleled impact of the 4-H experience, demonstrating that young people are four times more likely to contribute to their communities; two times more likely to make healthier choices; two times more likely to be civically active; and two times more likely to participate in STEM programs. 

ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities. 

SOURCE: Tracy Fowler-Pestle, 4-H Youth Development Program Coordinator serving Henry, Mercer, Rock Island and Stark Counties