Imperial County 4-H Young Ambassador Project member Brooke Peterson is shown with 500 pieces of 10-inch by 6-inch fabric she cut for the 4-H Face Covering Fabric and Pattern in One kits. | COURTESY PHOTO
IMPERIAL COUNTY — When the Imperial County 4-H Young Ambassadors were forced to cancel their annual leadership project due to the county’s stay-at-home order, group members still found a way to make a difference in the community, demonstrating how tough times can make great leaders.
The group of 18 ambassadors (ages 11 to 14) representing 4-H clubs from all over Imperial County had to quickly shift their efforts from a project that had been months in the planning, into something they could do during and related to the pandemic.
The 4-H members decided to make face-mask kits for the community that could be assembled at home with nothing more than a needle and thread.
“Normally, people don’t have sewing machines, but that one is so simple you can do it with a needle and thread. Originally, we were going to make 500 kits, but we got so much fabric we made 1,000 kits, and instead of one we ended up putting two face masks, so that one could be washed and used. We also made 1,350 pre-made facemasks,” said Linda Sanchez, a past 4-H Club adviser, who is working with the Imperial County 4-H Young Ambassadors.
Sanchez worked with Yu Meng, Imperial County Cooperative Extension 4-H, youth, family and community adviser, to create the Imperial County 4-H Young Ambassador project.
Initially, the group named this year’s annual leadership project “Americanism” and focused on proper American flag disposal. Youth members would help lead the community in following the proper guidelines and ceremonial steps to dispose of tattered and torn U.S. flags.
Planning for the project began last fall. The pandemic immediately changed the direction of the original plan for the project, Sanchez explained.
“I talked to my kids about doing a 4-H project. We had all the flags lined up and when COVID hit, there went all our plans. We talked about what we could do as an alternative with the kids and they decided to do this,” she said.
In a chance meeting with the Imperial Valley Community Foundation Chief Executive Officer Bobby Brock at the Carrot Festival Parade in Holtville, Sanchez found a source of funding.
Brock encouraged Sanchez to apply for the Ocotillo Wind Fund Benefit Program, a competitive grant program set up years ago, when the wind-farm project went up and the company decided to set up some ongoing endowments to help the community.
“In light of the current pandemic, we understand the needs and priorities change. The fact that 4-H was able to respond to the pandemic to meet these needs and develop leadership among their youth makes us glad that we are able to assist them,” Brock said of awarding 4-H the grant, even thought it’s original intent had shifted.
An unavoidable hurdle the group faced because of the quarantine was having to organize the entire production of mask kits through Zoom meetings and for members to make the kits individually.
Donations by community members of supplies to make the kits were dropped off at Brickhaus Coffee in Imperial and Sanchez’s house before being distributed to individual 4-H groups for the production process.
“We gave every first-responder agency in every city in the Valley face masks. We hooked up with I.V. Transit, and now if you get on one of their buses and don’t have a face mask, they give you one (of ours),” Sanchez said.
Fourteen-year-old Shelby Rolfe is member of Verde 4-H Club and spent the past few weeks cutting fabric to form into face coverings. She also prepared a video to teach others how to prepare the face coverings.
“I think it’s really important to help,” Shelby said. “This is something our community needs right now.”
A leader of the group, Shelby came up with the idea to make an instructional video for those who received their masks.
“I watched a lot of demonstration videos and I thought I could so something like that. My mom helped me to film it,” she said. “I got a lot of leadership experience. It was hard to organize a lot of things, but I got a lot of out of it, and I’m grateful for the experience.”
Brothers Thacker and Oliver Popejoy of El Centro are members of the Mt. Signal 4-H Club. They said the youths were divided into groups of “phone tree/callers,” “fabric cutters,” and “those in charge of collating and distribution.”
The Popejoy brothers helped by making phone calls seeking fabric donations and community support. The duo put together a video on Facebook to help further their outreach efforts.
“Everything about COVID-19 has been a bit scary and lonely. It’s created a lot of real-life problems for people. The news can be very depressing. But our Imperial County Young Ambassador Project group figured out a way to band together, stay in contact even with physical distancing and used our combined skillset and youthful energy to solve at least one problem for as many people as we could,” 14-year-old Thacker said.
“I agree with my brother, Thacker. It feels good to help our community in the best way possible to protect their health with the gift of respiratory protection,” Oliver, 12, said.
Imperial County Cooperative Extension 4-H Director and Adviser Anita Martinez said a lot of work went into the project.
“This was happening simultaneously as our virtual presentation day, April 25, based on working on public speaking kids have to learn a script create poster boards. It takes weeks of preparation. Them doing their practicing on top of the time to do their schoolwork and make these facemasks is impressive,” she said.
“When you have parents’ support there to this extent, you know you have a good program. Seeing the value and ability to develop in so many ways is inspiring. We are very proud of the kids,” Martinez said.
Martinez, a 4H member since childhood said, “This countywide project is an amazing opportunity for our youth to become prepared for not only future leadership roles in their own 4-H Clubs, but leaderships roles in life. The opportunities for growth and development are endless and Imperial County 4-H leadership is very proud of their accomplishment thus far. We know we will see these members as Senior County Ambassadors one day,” Martinez added.
Local 4-H administrators have high hopes that the Imperial County 4-H Young Ambassador project will be used as a model for 4-H clubs across the state.