Making the Best Better

July 2003

Not too many job descriptions include expectations like, “Be able to rise early, go to bed late, and remain enthusiastic all day long.” “Work well with many different types of people.” “Share your love of 4-H with youth around the state.” But this is exactly what the Volunteer Camping Assistants (VCA) of the West Virginia University (WVU) Extension Program do every summer.

The VCA program is run through the 4-H and Youth, Family, and Adult Development department of the Extension Service. Since 1921, the program has had a variety of names, still maintaining many of the same values and strengths of its beginning. The State Extension Program hires Volunteer Camping Assistants to work in county 4-H camps across West Virginia. Upon selection, VCAs attend a weeklong training session to prepare for overnight camps — an important aspect of the West Virginia program. Campers range from ages eight to twenty-one and come from different backgrounds to spend a week learning more about 4-H, meeting other youth, and having fun.

What these campers often don’t realize is that through the hard work of Extension staff and the VCAs, they’ll probably take home a few lessons about respect, friendship, and loyalty along with their bug bites and crafts. “It’s really hard work. Last summer, I came home one weekend with a sore throat, sunburn, another nametag, and some wonderful memories—collapsed on my bed, woke up in time to do my laundry, say hello to my family, and drive four hours to my next camp.” For Joey Wright, this is a typical summer. He has worked as a VCA for the past three summers.

Now and Then

4-H is an international program provided through land-grant universities. Its focus is self-development — through the head, heart, hands, and health. 4-Hers learn the importance of good decision-making, ethics, service to others, and physical fitness throughout the year in club work, but for many campers, the peak of the entire 4-H program is camp.

That is why it is so important for West Virginia University to provide good leaders for these camps. Dr. Patricia Mulkeen, director of the VCA program and an Extension Specialist in 4-H, says she likes “the opportunity we have to send some of our very best shining stars in 4-H throughout the state — so many kids get to meet them and learn through them.” She explains how the VCAs inspire the adult leaders in each county as well. “We usually think about the impact the VCAs have on youth, but frankly I think their attitude, commitment, and energy affect the adult volunteers, as well.”

This commitment to excellence in service is the foundation of the program. In 1921, leaders of the West Virginia 4-H program met at Jackson’s Mill State Camp to develop the kind of programming that still exists. They took this model into their individual counties, and the camping program developed. By 1935, each of the fifty-five counties in West Virginia had a camp.

County and state volunteers greeted youth when they walked (yes, walked) into camp. The VCAs, known then by other names, helped expand each county camp. Large numbers of these workers traveled — working all summer to bring supplies and enthusiasm to even the most remote of camps.

These VCAs were like Joey and his coworkers — they’re in college, have been in 4-H for at least ten years, and have too much fun VCAing each year to give it up. “I wanted to become a VCA because, as I was growing up in the 4-H program, I benefited a lot from what the program gave me. When I became eligible to become a VCA, I wanted to start giving back to the program that had given so much to me,” says VCA Shay McNeil.

A genuine desire to help others is motivation for many VCAs. Brock Armstrong, a third year VCA, wanted to teach his campers the importance of service this past summer. He showed the young campers in a way they would understand. During a dark campfire, Brock asked one of the youngest, smallest campers to come forward. Raising his hand high above his six-foot frame, Brock challenged the camper to jump and give him a high five. The young boy would have probably kept trying past lights out, despite his growing frustration, if Brock didn’t finally stop him. When he did call it quits, Brock told him to try again, but this time he got to ask for help from anyone he wanted in camp. With the assistance of an older camper, the little guy easily did it. The moral of Brock’s story — 4-H is a place where you can always find someone to help you out, or be able to help someone else, without any embarrassment.

This exposure to new ideas is important for the youth. Jeff Bailey, a former VCA, calls it “bringing people with different ideas together.” He loved the chance he got to “share with the kids things they had never seen, thoughts they had never imagined.”

These opportunities to share come from the diverse interests of the VCAs. Their reasons to volunteer are just as varied. Ashley Skavenski, an education major at West Virginia Wesleyan College, loves working with children. She says that not only is she gaining experience each summer, but the kids “rock it!” Jennifer Sebert, a sports medicine student at High Point University in North Carolina, became a VCA to continue working in 4-H and because her parents served as VCAs when they were in college. Mark Miller, interested in landscape architecture and studying at WVU, was just looking for a fun way to spend the summers.

Whatever their reasons for volunteering, almost all of these workers find the program helps them as much as they are helping others. Among the lessons learned, VCAs mention increased flexibility, a better work ethic, improved communication skills, and a unique sense of self-discovery. “I’ve learned a lot about myself — like some aspects of my personality — things I need to work on, because of some of the situations I’ve had to handle,” says McNeil.

Dr. Mulkeen hopes that these students are also getting an increased awareness of their ability to be leaders, “whether it’s up front or on the sidelines.” She knows from observing in camps, that VCAs are role models—a focus of attention whether they are leading an activity or sitting in the back row during an assembly.

Amee Patel, a 4-Her for twelve years, remembers her VCAs as just that — role models. “I definitely looked up to them as role models and friends. They were perfect examples of how someone could be excited about the 4-H program.”

VCAs often don’t realize the impact they have. Barbara Copenhaver-Bailey, a VCA from 1985-1991, remembers one camper that approached her. “She was a first-year camper and had forgotten her pillow. She says that I offered her mine and because of that she ended up staying. Now, she’s an Extension agent — making a career of 4-H! I don’t even remember that situation, but years later she thanked me.”

How It Works

Doing a job you love, inspiring youth across the state, and gaining skills that are valuable to any employer . . . who would give that up? Some VCAs feel like they might have to soon. With college costs on the rise, students almost have to work a high-paying summer job to make it. The VCAs receive less money than their counterpart college students that lifeguard, waitress, or work desk jobs.

The program hires students to work one to six weeks for a scholarship from the WVU Foundation. From 2001-2002, it was backed by the Americorps Foundation for National Service, too. Through Americorps, participants received up to $1,100 dollars towards college tuition or loan repayment for 450 hours of work. This cooperation isn’t perfect though.

“The biggest obstacle of working with Americorps,” says Dr. Mulkeen, “is the limit on the term of service. It is two years, and although this position is only part-time, Americorps counts it as a full term of service.” Other Americorps volunteers earn up to $8,000 in two terms, but VCAs can currently only earn a quarter of that. “If we could keep on doing this for at least a third year, then it would be worth it,” says Dr. Mulkeen. “We are looking to legislation changes that allow VCAs to earn the same amount regardless of their terms of service.”

“I really hope that the legislation changes — without that extra education award it’ll be hard to afford VCAing,” reasons two-year Americorps recipient Becca Fint.

This issue runs deep — without some kind of increased financial assistance, the program is going to lose quality volunteers and will appear inadequate to future volunteers. Leslie Adkins, program officer for the VCAs at the West Virginia Commission for National Service, is also hopeful. “So far, I’ve had a great time working with this program, they do such good work. There’s a lot to look forward to.”

Looking Forward

Whatever the future brings, the past remains the same. Another VCA still remembers her experience. Cathy Mams (VCA 1974-75) now looks back on how it helped her in her adult life. In addition to giving her experience working with children that later paid off in twenty-five years of teaching, she adds a few other specific skills. “I got so much from those two summers — always have a back up plan, work hard, be on time, and follow through.”

The most important thing that Cathy walked away with came through Charting, a self-development class that VCAs often facilitate at county camps. Charting helps teenage campers think about their futures, families, relationships, and values. “In teaching Charting, I realized that I lived a pretty sheltered life. I had it pretty well,” says Cathy. “I found out that many of those campers didn’t have the opportunities I did, and after that I tried to appreciate everything I had more and to help others achieve, also.”

Jeff Bailey (VCA 1990-92) can’t pinpoint only one benefit from the job. He says, “I would not be where I am, who I am, do the things I do, without the VCA program. It molded me into the person I am. Without it, I would hate to see the road I might have traveled.”

Today, McNeil travels the same road less taken, planting her enthusiasm and love of 4-H at each camp she works. During her first summer working as a VCA she had the chance to give back. At the final campfire, she asked a camper to sit on Council Rock, an honor for the evening. She asked a boy who she noticed quietly taking the lead all week long. After camp was over that night, he came to her and explained what an honor this recognition was.

“Ever since then, whenever I see him, that’s what I think of. I’m glad that I was able to give him that chance. It was a simple gesture on my part, but to him it meant so much more. That, to me, is what it is to be a 4-Her — to do something small but to have such a large effect on someone else.”

Jessica Orndorff is a junior Public Relations major at Boston University. She has been involved in the 4-H program in West Virginia for thirteen years.

Originally published in the 2003 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.