Volunteers travel hundreds of miles to rebuild 4-H farms hit by Irma

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After Hurricane Irma swept through south Florida, Jeramy Smith, 4-H agent for UF/IFAS Extension Miami-Dade County, jumped in his car to survey damage at the three agricultural learning sites used by the county’s 4-H youth to raise plants and animals.

The sites were in shambles, Smith said.

In Homestead, fallen trees destroyed facilities that housed 4-H members goats, swine and steer. Elsewhere, power outages meant no running water for livestock. At a retirement home where a 4-H club had planted a butterfly garden last spring, wind and rain had washed away plants and soil.

“The kids put a lot of time and care into their livestock and gardening projects. To have all that hard work turned upside down was disappointing,” Smith said. About 60 4-H members participate in agricultural projects in Miami-Dade County, he said.

Smith knew he and the local 4-H clubs would need help getting the sites up and running again.

Fortunately, as part of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension, 4-H agents like Smith are connected to a statewide network of other professionals and volunteers ready to help each other. So Smith put out a call on social media, hoping the larger 4-H family would hear him.

They did. The weekend of Sept. 23, more than 50 youth and adults from as far away as Gainesville traveled to Miami-Dade County to replace roofs, set posts, clear tree limbs and replant gardens. Volunteers were organized by Stephanie Farmer, 4-H advocate and agriculture journalist, and Stacey Warden, a 4-H club leader in Jackson County.

“We had never met most of these people, and they just came and donated their time and supplies, which shows how important helping others is in 4-H,” said Mason Rue, a member of the New Beginnings 4-H Club in Miami-Dade County.

Miami-Dade 4-H club leaders were critical to organizing volunteer activities at each site, Smith said. One leader, Jessica Davila, even opened her own horse stalls to animals who had gotten loose from damaged pens.

Kristen Massaro, a 4-H alumna from Hillsborough County, said she was moved by the volunteers’ generosity. “It was great to see how the families worked together for a common goal of a working farm and agricultural experience for the kids,” she said.

According to Smith, volunteers put more than 1,200 hours into repairs over the weekend. Donations of money and equipment also made the recovery possible, he said.

“Several businesses, such as Lay’s Feed, Harold’s Feed, Crossroads Ace Hardware and Tractor Supply, donated tools, livestock feed and gift cards, and cash donations from the Florida 4-H Foundation and individuals throughout the country helped purchase additional supplies,” Smith said. “In total, more than $3,000 worth of materials were donated or purchased for 4-H in Miami-Dade County.” With the learning sites functional, 4-Hers can return to their animal and gardening projects, Smith said.

“These projects are about more than learning how to raise a prize-winning pig or plant a garden. The UF/IFAS Extension 4-H Youth Development Program sees these experiences as a tool to help young people develop life skills, such as responsibility, public speaking, decision-making, strong work-ethic and, especially in this case, the importance of helping others in need,” he said.

 

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.

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