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Hooked on 4-H

Tonya Bales knew from the time she was in the fourth grade that she wanted to run a 4-H program.

Beginning in December, she got the chance to achieve that goal in Covington County. Since then, she has been busy teaching students how to blow up Coke bottles with Mentos and demonstrating how butter doesn’t just come from the grocery store.

And she loves every single minute of it.

“I was in 4-H since the fourth grade,” said the Florida native. “I did it until I graduated high school. It was always a thing with me and my friends — we’d say we wanted to run 4-H when we were older. Now I get to, and I love it.”

Bales’ official title is agent assistant with the Covington County Extension Office. She has 24 clubs at seven schools under her direction.

“We do so many different things in 4-H,” she said. “It’s not like a lot of people remember. One month, we made butter inside the classroom so I could prove to kids that it doesn’t come from the grocery store. It demonstrated the process — how it gets from the animal to the dinner plate.

“We’ve done science,” she said. “We studied physical and chemical changes where we blew up soda bottles using Mentos candy. They loved it.

“I try to do things from opposite ends of the spectrum,” she said. “One kid may like computers and another may like animals. This way every one gets involved and has a great time doing it.”

Caleb Briggs from Straughn Elementary School said the whole experience is “loads of fun.”

“Like when we blew up those soda bottles,” he said. “That was the greatest. At 4-H, we get to learn all sorts of stuff.”

Dylan Yarbrough, a fifth grader at W.S. Harlan Elementary School, said Monday’s event was her favorite by far. Monday, the students had the opportunity to fish in the pond in front of the USDA building.

“I love fishing,” she said. “With 4-H, we get to do lots of different stuff. I’ve got to shoot a BB gun and fish — that’s been the most fun, fishing.”

Bales said the organization, which is based on the idea of practical and “hands-on” learning and came from the desire to make public school education more connected to country life, teaches students invaluable lessons.

“(The organization is) important because it encourages students to be individually motivated,” she said. “It also teaches lots of youth leading, and it really focuses on future plans and developing life skills to help them achieve their future plans.

“(The H’s stand for) head, heart, hands and health — that’s the main key areas we try to focus in developing in the youth,” she said. “Head because of the thought process; hands for community service; health, for taking care of self, and heart, for developing loyalty and being a better person.

“And that’s what 4-H does — it makes you a better person,” she said.

Bales said she believes in the program so much she has involved her 5-year-old son, Preston, in the program.

“He may only be 5, but not too long ago he gave a great public demonstration on how to make chocolate sundaes,” she said. “It’s such a great confidence builder for every child.”

Bales is a graduate of Enterprise-Ozark Community College and is currently attending the University of Alabama where she is pursing a bachelor’s degree in child development.