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Illinois teen crowned national 4-H civic engagement winner

Two young women wearing crowns and sashes hold a sign that says "Climb the Hill" while lobbying.

EFFINGHAM COUNTY, Ill. – An Effingham County teen has won a national 4-H award for her efforts to improve her community and help families impacted by pediatric cancer.

Elizabeth Weidner, 16, of Dieterich is the winner of the 2021 4-H Youth in Action Pillar Award for Civic Engagement. Elizabeth is being recognized nationally for her advocacy for pediatric cancer awareness, research, and funding, and her commitment to supporting the families of pediatric cancer patients.

At age 12, Elizabeth, a University of Illinois Extension 4-H member, faced the overwhelming reality of a pediatric cancer diagnosis – stage IV High Risk Neuroblastoma. During her first hospital stay, her family made multiple trips to the store to replenish supplies, such as toothpaste, snacks, and shampoo.

“We were at the hospital for a long time during my first hospital stay,” Elizabeth recalls. “My parents kept having to go to the store for supplies. I knew as soon as I got out of that hospital, I wanted to do something about that for other families!”

Three years ago, Elizabeth launched a program to solicit donations of toiletries and snack food items for local children’s hospitals. Partnering with local businesses, 4-H clubs, and friends, Elizabeth works to ensure families of pediatric cancer patients have essential supplies needed for extended hospital stays. Though she spent much of the last few years in and out of the hospital herself, she has donated more than 60,000 essential items to five different children’s hospitals in her area in the past four years.

Elizabeth regularly advocates for childhood cancer awareness, research, and funding. Her 4-H experiences equipped her to confidently advocate for childhood cancer research on Capitol Hill and to sustain her long-term effort to provide supplies for families of cancer patients at local children’s hospitals. As Junior Miss Effingham County Fair Queen 2017, Crowns Fight Cancer was created. She was able to further her mission as Miss Central Illinois Outstanding Teen 2020 as an advocate for pediatric cancer, partnering with 4-H groups statewide. 

"4-H has empowered me to grow as a leader, not only in my community and state, but on the national level in spite of my long journey with Stage IV High Risk Neuroblastoma cancer," Elizabeth says. "At the time of my diagnosis, and subsequent relapses and progression, 4-H has been my constant companion, encouraging me to be who I am and teaching me to be resilient when life presented me with the toughest challenge a child needed to overcome: cancer!"

Her 4-H program coordinator agrees.

“Elizabeth is such an inspiration,” says Patti Logan. “Her strength, courage, and sheer determination to make a difference has made a huge impact that reaches far and wide. Elizabeth practices the 4-H pledge in her everyday life. She is an extraordinary young lady.”

Elizabeth works closely with a number of advocacy groups in the battle against childhood cancer along with helping Ronald McDonald Houses and Children's Miracle Network Hospitals in multiple states, from cooking meals as a ‘guest chef’ to donating snacks and essential hygiene items needed during a medical crisis for all families.  

Elizabeth uses her 4-H and pageant experience to tirelessly advocate for those too weak to speak. She finished an extensive social media campaign throughout September during National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month while receiving treatment at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. She was one of four youth chosen for the American Childhood Cancer Organization/Amazon Ambassadors for the Childhood Cancer Awareness. 

She is  a national ambassador for American Cancer Society #GoldTogether, working with youth to raise awareness and action. This past relay season in Illinois she raised $23,000 for her Effingham County Crowns Fight Cancer #GoldTogether team. Added with her other fundraising efforts, the teen has donated thousands of dollars. 

The Weidner family is a multi-generational 4-H family. Elizabeth's parents, Jennifer and Matthew, are both 4-H alums. Jennifer was a member of the Morton Cloverettes of Tazewell County, serving as a junior leader, federation member, and fair queen. Matthew participated in 4-H school programs. 

Elizabeth's three brothers have a strong 4-H history. Their main club is the Country Cousins, and they hold membership in several special interest clubs. Ethan is a junior leader, with a focus on swine, cattle, and sheep livestock projects. Eric and Evan (a cloverbud) take agricultural, visual arts, and civic engagement projects.

"It truly has been a family affair with 4-H at every level," Jennifer says. "We are absolutely thrilled at the opportunities 4-H gives youth, from city to country, as a place for everyone to succeed!"

Elizabeth has volunteered for clinical drug trials.

"I’m not the first and won’t be the last 4-Her to battle cancer," she says, "but if I choose an option that might save the life of another by my participation in a particular clinical trial, then 4-H has again allowed me the skills to live out our motto of giving my health so others might live a better life in our community, country, and even the world." 

When Elizabeth was unable to attend 4-H meetings and fair, she used technology to call in and fully participate. "Elizabeth always finds a way," says Dana Homann, Extension youth educator.

"Because of my disease, I’ve had to be creative, innovative, and think outside of the box on how I must do things; from pre-taping appearances, to using my written words as Letters to the Editor, emailing politicians, using technology to address individuals or social media for my platform in educating others," Elizabeth says. "I could sit idly by and allow someone else to 'step up to the plate' on many issues. I could use the 'cancer card' as a reason not to be involved, but I don’t. Kids can’t fight cancer alone, communities can’t progress without active participation, and adults can be influenced by the actions of kids."

So, Elizabeth continues her quest with courage, determination, and a smile that melts hearts wherever she goes. She received the Prudential Community Spirit Bronze Award and the Illinois Governor's Volunteer Service Award. 

"Through 4-H’s public speaking, health, leadership, and civic engagement projects, I’ve been given the guidance, tools, and encouragement that put me in the driver’s seat to make great things happen," Elizabeth says. "4-H has set me up for a lifetime of self-discovery, growth, and inspiration.

"It has helped me see challenges as opportunities. My legacy will not be wealth; my legacy will be what others have learned from me. The mark I leave will be felt for a long time."

The 4-H Youth in Action Awards began in 2010 to recognize 4-H’ers who have used the knowledge they gained in 4-H to create a lasting impact in their communities. The award is announced during National 4-H Week, which is Oct. 4-10.

Join Elizabeth's journey on Facebook and Instagram. Weidner will receive a $5,000 scholarship for higher education and will serve as an advocate and spokesperson for 4-H Civic Engagement programming. She is joined by other 2021 Youth in Action Pillar Winners: Madelyn Zimmerman of Indiana, winner for agriculture; Mayyadah Zagelow of Washington, winner for healthy living; and Aidan Spencer of Oklahoma, winner in STEM.

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