GAINESVILLE, FL (UF/IFAS-September 10, 2019) — When Denise Erekson and her family moved from Texas to Hardee County, Florida, in 2009, she was looking for ways to get her five daughters involved in their new community.
She soon met Carolyn Wyatt, director of UF/IFAS Extension Hardee County, who suggested that Denise’s daughters join 4-H. Though Denise had never been a 4-H member herself, her husband had, so she was familiar with its core values, long history and its role in the land-grant university system. It seemed like a good fit for her family, so she signed her daughters up with the local 4-H club.
After a few years, the club’s leader stepped down, and that’s when Denise stepped up, holding the club leader position for the next six years. Right away, Denise saw opportunities to strengthen 4-H youth leadership in Hardee County.
Before her arrival, Hardee County 4-H members had never participated in district or state-level events. Denise was committed to giving youth more leadership experience, so she created the first 4-H Council in the county, and encouraging 4-Hers to run for officer positions and attend 4-H University and 4-H Legislature.
Helping youth attend to more leadership events often meant transporting them herself in her minivan, whether it was across the county or across the state. She would even pick up youth from other 4-H districts if they needed a ride, once going as far as Sarasota to help a 4-H member in need.
“At that point, I wasn’t just doing it for my girls—I wanted to help everyone in the program,” she says.
Denise was always happy to get youth to these events because she saw them as essential to the 4-H experience.
“The thing I love about 4-H is seeing the youth become the leaders they are capable of being,” she said.
Three years ago, Denise began getting severe headaches. She was eventually diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer that had spread to her brain. Though the chances of recovery were slim, that didn’t dampen her enthusiasm and drive—during her cancer treatment, she was still planning 4-H activities. Today Denise continues with treatment and remains positive and energetic. Her days of driving youth around the state are over, though she continues to be involved in 4-H through her younger daughters.
She encourages other adults to become 4-H volunteers and make a difference in young peoples’ lives.
“4-H is a youth development program—it allows you to be part of developing the next generation of youth, helping them become better leaders and productive members of society,” she says.
Florida 4-H serves more than 200,000 youth in all 67 counties through the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension. Approximately 12,000 adult and youth volunteers make the program possible.
For more information on volunteering with 4-H, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension county office.