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Willimantic 4-H Fans after-school program flourishes

Amy Walker and students harvest kale from the garden.

It’s been a busy year for the students involved in the W.B. Sweeney Elementary School 4-H FANs IMprogram, culminating with an exciting eight-week summer program.

During the 2016-17 school year, students met weekly to participate in fun activities designed to teach healthy eating, exercise and gardening. Summer Story Days, held on Wednesdays, included guest readers and food demonstrations in which students created healthy snacks. Families attending took home a bounty of fresh vegetables from the students’ garden.

Guest readers were well received by students and their families and included Cameron Faustman, dean of the College, wearing his popular corn hat; Jim Rivers, town manager of Willimantic, where Sweeney is located; Elsa Núñez, president of Eastern Connecticut State University; Mae Flexer, state senator; Patricia Garcia, superintendent of Windham School District; Susan Johnson, state representative; Marc Cournoyer, Windham County 4-H youth development program coordinator; Lindsey Brush, 4-H FANs IM program assistant; and Amy Walker, third-grade teacher and club adult leader.

Although the grant funding that supported the establishment of the program has ended, Walker plans to continue the Sweeney program.

“It is with great pleasure that I can acknowledge that the 4-H after school club at Sweeney Elementary will be continuing into the new year,” says Cournoyer. “Sustainability of grant-funded 4-H programs is very difficult upon the completion of the grant period. This has historically been an issue. With great teachers like Amy Walker who understand the important role 4-H can play in her students’ lives, we are able to sustain this wonderful club. I am also very thankful to the administration of Sweeney Elementary for their continued support of our program and their willingness to allow Amy to continue serving as the leader of this club.”           

The program began during spring 2016, under the guidance of Walker; Kelly Caisse, UConn public service technician; and teen mentor, Mackenzie Hill.

“The whole goal of the 4-H FANs IMprogram is to promote programs that are self-sustaining,” Caisse explains. “Everyone is very happy with the program. We’ve had support from parents, as well as the school principal, Angela Kiss.”

The students have completed their second year growing a wide array of vegetables in twelve raised beds, after starting seeds during the early spring months. The crop included potatoes that were harvested from a deep raised bed, built to accommodate wheelchair gardening.

The team created a variety of projects for the students. They gathered materials during nature walks and made composting tubes. The compost was later added to the garden beds. Students planted seeds inside tip-less gloves that allowed them to watch the root systems develop. They harvested sunflower seeds from their plants, and sold these during school events. This year, they planted some of the harvested sunflower seeds and watched as the plants grew up to the school roof. Students also took part in Lego robotics and public speaking.

“I was really impressed by the collaborative effort between Amy, Kelly and Marc,” says Linda Castro, program administrator for 4-H FANs IM. “Year two is considered the sustainability phase. They used what we gave them in addition to the available resources in their county, to make the program fit for their community.”

Cournoyer points out that community resources are vital to these programs. “It is crucial to have partners who not only understand what UConn 4-H is attempting to build in the lives of our young people, but are also willing to roll up their sleeves and work hand-in-hand with us to better their local neighborhoods and communities.”