Sandy Hernandez’s career as a 4-H volunteer began with a simple act of kindness.
Known as “Mr. H” to the hundreds of youth he has worked with over the years, Hernandez got involved in 4-H when he was the coordinator of a school-based program in Pennsylvania. New to the position, he learned he needed to add a summer day camp to the program.
That’s when he met Deborah Dietrich, his local 4-H agent with Penn State Extension, who offered 4-H projects and curriculum that could enhance his summer camp.
“So, on April 17, 1997, my birthday, I attended my first 4-H meeting and I officially became a 4-H volunteer,” Hernandez said. “I will never forget that day, because at the conclusion of the meeting, Ms. Deb brought out a Pepperidge Farm cake. That simple act of kindness demonstrated that this was a start of a beautiful partnership.”
In recognition of that beautiful partnership of more than 20 years, Florida 4-H has nominated Mr. H for the Salute to Excellence Award, an honor given by National 4-H Council to 4-H volunteers who have made a profound impact on youth and the 4-H Youth Development Program.
Following that first introduction to 4-H, Hernandez became heavily involved in the 4-H program in Berks County, where he engaged youth in projects to develop social skills such as Discover Me, Character Counts and Talking with TJ. Hernandez also became an advocate for 4-H, serving as a member of the Over All Extension Board and president of the 4-H Development Board in the county.
In her recommendation letter, Deborah Dietrich notes that it can be challenging to retain 4-H volunteers over several years, making Hernandez’s commitment all the more exceptional.
“That we worked together for 10 years speaks to Sandy’s professionalism and dedication to positive youth development,” she wrote.
In 2006, Hernandez moved back to his hometown of Cidra, Puerto Rico, where he soon became involved in the 4-H program there.
“When I went for my volunteer interview, I expected that I would get some materials to start my first club. Instead I was informed that the local 4-H programs don’t receive any funding or have Spanish 4-H curriculums. I had to start from scratch,” he said.
In collaboration with the 4-H program back in Berks County, Hernandez began translating 4-H curriculum into Spanish and started 4-H STEM School Enrichment programs locally. Hernandez excelled as a volunteer, working with 125 to 150 youth each year.
“I went beyond the traditional role of a volunteer. Working with Puerto Rico 4-H turned me into a very polished volunteer leader,” Hernandez said.
When Hernandez moved to Pinellas County, Florida, in 2015, he brought a wealth of experience and new ideas for engaging youth in science and technology.
“Sandy saw a need to better share his 4-H experiences by serving as a volunteer program assistant, helping Pinellas County 4-H in developing innovative programs such as City Cultivators and Food Science Summer Day Camps, Super Science Days and a training program for short term project leaders called 4-H SPARK Academy,” said Alyssa Bowers, 4-H agent with UF/IFAS Extension Pinellas County, in her nomination letter.
In addition to spearheading the SPARK Academy and other volunteer trainings, Hernandez has also earned grant funding for these programs, recruited more volunteers and plays a key role in outreach to Spanish-speaking youth and families, helping translate materials and supporting in-person education with Spanish-speaking participants, according to Bowers.
Even though Hernandez is now based in Florida, he still supports the 4-H programs in both Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico.
“Sandy continues to collaborate with Pennsylvania and provide 4-H STEM Training in Puerto Rico at least once a year and has recently began his innovative new program 4-H Fusion, which uses Zoom to host 4-H Virtual Clubs with a Puerto Rican bilingual school,” Bowers said.
Hernandez says the impact 4-H can make on youth is what keeps him so involved.
“I have seen my 4-H youth become responsible and caring adults. 4-H has a very holistic approach in working with youth which mirrors how I worked with my kids in my community programs. I have seen the outcomes. This is why I continue to invest my time with 4-H,” he said.
When recruiting new volunteers to the program, Hernandez emphasizes that 4-H is an investment in youth.
“Being a 4-H volunteer is like being a gardener who plants a seed and takes good care of it, and months later you hope it grows into a beautiful flower,” he said. “You will invest a bit of time, facilitate their learning and ignite their spark. And you hope that they will become contributing, responsible, respectful and caring adults in our community. And when you see and are happy with your end product, you will be inspired to continue to guide the next generation.”
4-H National Council is set to announce the recipients of the regional and national 4-H Salute to Excellence Awards at the end of July.
Want to help Florida’s youth on their journey? Your support of Pinellas County 4-H provides opportunities for youth to grow as leaders and responsible citizens while fostering the community and support they need. If you or your organization would like to discuss partnering with 4-H in Florida, please contact Caylin Hilton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352.392.5432.