4-H Club Teaches Animal Care, Teamwork

Read the original article by Benjamin Kail at usnews.com here.

Never let go of your goat.

That’s one of the rules when you’re showing a goat at a fair, and it’s a mantra that 9-year-old CeCe Foss knows well.

At Jennifer Rudtke’s Helanco Farm in Uncasville on Saturday morning, Foss, an energetic Quaker Hill Elementary School student, clutched several baby goats between bottle feedings, scrubbing buckets, hauling hay to training pens and chasing a chicken or two.

“I feel really close to the animals,” said Foss, now in her second year in Rudtke’s goat club, which is part of the University of Connecticut‘s 4-H New London County program. “I already really want to get a farm and I’m getting a pretty good start at it.”

For three years, Rudtke’s club has offered kids a chance to raise livestock they couldn’t take care of in their Montville, Waterford, Niantic, Colchester and other neighborhoods. Every Saturday morning, Rudtke and parent volunteers give lessons on basic animal care, safety and training that will culminate in nine children showing goats — including six new baby goats Rudtke called “so stinking cute” — at fairs throughout the region, including North Stonington, Lebanon, Ledyard and the Big E.

“They got up at 5:30 this morning waiting to come to a barn to do chores,” said a bewildered Holly Badalamenti of her two kids, Corbin and Natalee Anderson, both students at the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London. “We live in Niantic in an area where we can’t have farm animals. The kids love them. I personally am afraid of them.”

“I have a two-page list of chores,” Rudtke, a 60-year-old physical therapist, said with a laugh. “We learn by doing. We make lots of mistakes and that’s OK.”

While 4-H — which has clubs in Ledyard, Lebanon and the Naval Submarine Base in Groton — is for children aged 7 to 18, New London County also features an “Explorer’s Club” for 5- to 6-year-olds, Rudtke said. Many of the explorers advance to the older group, which includes three Montville teenagers: Gavin and Jordan Lageunesse and Haley Moore.

“Seeing the goats, taking care of them and the responsibility that comes with it is fun,” Jordan Lageunesse, 13, said as he quietly milked his goat, April — who recently gave birth to twins — while younger club members scampered around the barn and fed the babies. “Showing them (at fairs) can get intense. I like that April is big now — when she was small, I had to bend down too much.”

Rudtke said the program wouldn’t be possible without dedicated parents, like Nicole Lageunesse and Anna Cristofaro, who camp out at local fairgrounds and bring their children to and from trainings, meetings and events. At fairs, including the 4-H Fair at the North Stonington Fairgrounds — which benefitted from barn upgrades thanks to Montville and Lebanon 4-H groups chipping in with funds and supplies — the adults step back and let the kids manage the animals and show them off to judges.

“The kids run everything at the fairs,” said Nicole Lageunesse, who grew up on a farm but was “never into goats” until her sons joined the local 4-H club. “We’re just there to feed them and drive them there.”

Rudtke, who has a bachelor’s degree in agriculture and a master’s degree in physical therapy, noted the free program also teaches kids chemistry, both in teamwork and through soap-making in her kitchen. The kids learn marketing techniques, raising funds for the program through soap and bake sales and selling advertisements to fair groups. They then track the success of soap scents, figure out which grains are best and learn how to select good hay. Rudtke added that they’re also introduced to good animal health, practicing vaccination on fruit such as kiwis.

“It’s great to see kids be excited about learning life skills,” said Rudtke, describing the club as a confidence-booster that could translate to success in college, technical training and the workforce. “At first, none of the kids spoke. Now, everybody talks, and they’re in charge.”

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