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TUCSON — University of Arizona Cooperative Extension will waive state and county program fees for the university's youth development program, Arizona 4-H, for the next year.

Arizona 4-H provides development opportunities for youths in every Arizona county and five tribal nations through eight participation pathways: agriculture, civic engagement, community service, cultural understanding, camping, healthy living, leadership and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Young people who participate in research-backed 4-H experience are four times more likely to contribute to their communities and two times more likely to make healthier choices, be civically active and participate in STEM programs, said Jeremy Elliott-Engel, associate director for 4-H Youth Development with UA Cooperative Extension.

"We believe this is an important time for the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension to step up and do what we can to engage even more youth and families so they can benefit from what Arizona 4-H has to offer," Elliott-Engel said. "Ensuring Arizona 4-H is free means we can create opportunity for all."

4-H is a community-based program that relies heavily on adult volunteers. In addition to waiving youth state and county program fees, UA Cooperative Extension — in partnership with the Arizona 4-H Youth Foundation — will cover the costs of required volunteer background checks for the next six years. Many volunteers covered their own background check costs in the past.

"We all know that the past year has had a lot of challenges that have been hard for many. The silver lining is that we have attracted audiences who now have the ability to thrive and find their spark," Elliott-Engel said.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, UA Cooperative Extension county-based 4-H professionals adapted their programming to support Arizona youths remotely. The online format allowed 4-H Healthy Living Ambassadors to grow from three counties to a statewide initiative. STEM YOUniversity was expanded from a weeklong camp to a series of multiple monthlong programs, engaging hundreds of youths across the state that had never previously participated in 4-H and helping to launch the county 4-H STEM Ambassador Project.

County-based 4-H professionals also helped county fairs transition their livestock sales to a virtual platform, ensuring that 4-H participants were able to sell their livestock.

"Removing financial barriers to participation is another positive move forward. Investing in our adult volunteers and in welcoming 4-H youth means we can ensure even more Arizona youth thrive," Elliott-Engel said.

Prior to the pandemic, Arizona 4-H introduced a strategic plan designed to grow the Arizona 4-H program from approximately 6,000 club members to 20,000 over the next five years.

"We cannot reach our goal of 20,000 by 2025 without first supporting our volunteers, and this was identified as the greatest burden and barrier," said Deb Lester, director of the Arizona 4-H Youth Foundation. "We are proud we can help say thank you and help more people find the joy of investing in our youth."

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