In many communities across the country and around the world, 4-H clubs have provided youth with not only a greater knowledge of agriculture, but also leadership skills, work ethics, sportsmanship, community service and lifelong friendships, representing the values of “head, heart, hands and health.”

In a tiny hamlet south of Verona, the 4-H club has become a central part of the community’s identity, not only in spirit, but also through a physical landmark.

The Paoli 4-H Fireballs mark 60 years this year, and club leaders had planned to celebrate the anniversary at Paoli Park this summer before the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is that park, located in the heart of the Town of Montrose and adopted by the club in the mid-1970s, that has become a centerpiece in both the identity of the Fireballs, but also the community at large.

With the gathering and many other club events permanently on hold, members have been reflective.

The group’s focus has changed over the years based on changing interests of its participants, says parent member Trina Pauli.

“Some clubs aren’t diversified,” she said. “A lot of clubs are just horses or dairy or beef or just arts and crafts, but the Fireballs do a great job of bringing that together and foster your ability to branch out.”

Some of the project areas Fireballs members can get involved in include arts and crafts, cooking and baking, dairy, beef, swine, horse and pony, sheep, poultry, rabbits, dogs, leathercraft, sewing, metal enameling, knitting, crocheting, felting, clothing, birds, Legos, model horses, quilting, stamping, scrapbooking, photography and woodworking.

At one point, Pauli said, horses overtook dairy as the predominant project, but dairy has had a resurgence.

“It’s based on the people,” she said. “What you do and what becomes important to the cub.”

When the group was formed in 1960, it had around 25 to 35 members. Club member Richard Johns came up with the Fireball name in a contest.

The Fireballs’ membership primarily comprises residents from Belleville, Verona and Paoli, but it also includes families from Oregon, Fitchburg and Madison. Most meetings are held at the Montrose Town Hall in Paoli.

Sherry Combs, whose two kids grew up with the club, called it an “extended family where everyone cares,” and she recalled times members have gone out of their way to provide food and support when someone in the club had cancer or a family in the club had a house fire.

“We do care about our club and the members in it; I’m not sure all clubs do that,” Pauli said. “You can join any club, and I wouldn’t choose another club. The Fireballs stick together, it’s such a good, fun club.”

Pauli said sometimes youth members take the time to help others with projects more than working on their own projects.

Members can get involved in charitable efforts such as singing at nursing homes, making blankets for the Lions Club, ringing the holiday bell for the Salvation Army and assembling bags with all the essentials to make a birthday cake to give to people who don’t have the means.

“Our club is really tuned in to people who care,” Combs said.

Most of the Fireballs’ typical summer events have been canceled this year because of the pandemic. Those include the Stoughton Fair and Dane County Fair, a ski night in February, participation in the Hometown Days Parade in June with members riding on a decorated wagon, a camping trip and swimming party in August.

Autumn activities include hayrides, bonfires, corn mazes and bowling, a potluck dinner with awards ceremony in November and singing Christmas carols with instrumental solos and duets to senior citizens in December.

Each January, the club hosts an arts discovery day, where several arts and crafts projects are offered. Projects have included recycling feed bags into tote bags, creating paracord leashes and collars, painting dried gourds and making gourd birdhouses, among other projects.

Verona Area Community Theater founder Dee Baldock was the group’s leader in the 1980s and 1990s, and said adults learn and then teach the kids, fostering a sense of responsibility.

“I loved that Fireballs spread around leadership responsibility on different projects between adult leaders – sewing leader, metal enameling leader, horse leader,” she said.

Creating leaders

Combs said one thing she thinks sets 4-H apart from other youth organizations is how both boys and girls, from ages 6-19, come together at meetings. They’ll play games like musical chairs and red light/green light.

“When you look at sports or Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts, it’s segregated by sex and age, it’s not the same cross-section as 4-H,” she said. “That’s what I think is really unique about 4-H.”

Club leader Vicki Sarbacker said that helps create a cycle of leadership.

“Little kids look up to big kids and really connect, they love looking up to them – then before you know it, they’re officers,” she said.

When kids become officers, they run the meetings, from setting the agenda to calling the meeting to order.

“It teaches them to be a leader, to speak in front of a group. It really helps kids gain self-esteem and the ability to speak coherently,” Combs said. “My daughter was shy and hated when people would even look at her, but over time by talking to judges at the fair and giving project reports, she became totally at ease.”

Combs also said it teaches kids how to accept losing and how to be a good sport, particularly when presenting animals or handiwork projects at summer fairs.

Sarbacker said watching kids grow as leaders makes being involved as a parent “so fun.”

“Kids hardly know they’re growing those skills,” her husband, Tom, said.

Combs’ daughter, Aidan, said she finds she still draws on that experience even now in graduate school.

“At a department level trying to organize, form a committee, run a meeting – I find I still do go back to those 4-H experiences,” she said. “It was a good low stakes environment to learn those skills in.”

Her brother, Galen, said that the personal responsibility of getting up early to work with animals gave him self-motivation and problem-solving skills that he’s carried with him into college.

“You spend several years looking up to and appreciating what older kids are doing – you take what you saw from those older members and put it into action,” he said.

Thinking of the future

While her mom has praised the cross-section of gender and age within the 4-H, Adidan would like to see more intersectionality.

“How do we engage people from different places, races, genders and adapt well for a new world?” she asked. “4-H has not been good at appealing to communities of color or urban areas.”

She said that requires a change in thinking.

“Frankly, 4-H has been seeing declining enrollment for a long time,” she said. “I hope we can pick out the best elements from our history that have touched people, but be open minded and creative enough to adapt to a new age.”

Galen feels some of those changes are occurring naturally.

“I think one of the best changes I’ve seen in 4-H since I got my start is the inclusion of many more nonagricultural backgrounds has expanded a lot since I joined,” he said. “We’re getting to see projects any person can do – not just someone who has resources for animals or crops – more home ec, more foods, more general 4-H projects.”

Aidan sees the pandemic as an opportunity. This summer, as community and county fairs were canceled, presenting their projects virtually was the only option for 4-H members.

“Moving forward, it’s important to change and adapt to the world as it’s been changing,” she said. “This virtual stuff has been out of necessity, but also it’s a way to move into a world that is more virtual – I think it’s been a missing piece. But local connection is important, how do we maintain that in a virtual space?”

One area she feels a shift towards a more virtual club cannot replace is the satisfaction of creating something physical.

“My mom did leathercraft as a kid and she still had all those tools so I learned how to do that from her, and it was a good connection to my mom,” she said.

Aidan progressed from flat leather objects such as coasters and bookmarks to layered objects like a wallet, and finally restored an old horse saddle.

“There’s something about making a physical thing that’s very satisfying – especially getting better and making more complex things over time.”

Neal Patten, community reporter, can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.