Since the early twentieth century, 4-H (head-heart-hands-health) has been an avenue for American boys and girls to develop leadership skills, receive vocational training, participate in community service and much more.
Today, 4-H, which is USDA’s premier youth development program, has clubs in 81 different countries including Iraq, thanks to the hard work and perseverance of one USDA employee—Mary Kerstetter.
Last month, Kerstetter returned from Iraq after more than two years as agricultural advisor for USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS). She volunteered for the assignment, wanting to lend her skills as a district conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to help the Iraqi people improve their agricultural sector. Shortly after her arrival in Iraq’s Anbar province in April 2009, Kerstetter found herself going back to many of the skills and training she’d acquired while in 4-H club as a child. This led to the idea that if she could help establish a 4-H program in Iraq, it would give Iraqi children similar opportunities to learn new skills, which could ultimately help them achieve a brighter future.
Kerstetter initiated Iraq’s 4-H program in the Anbar province after applying for and receiving two State Department Quick Response grants totaling almost $50,000. Since Iraq has more sheep than any other kind of livestock, the first 4-H clubs centered on teaching youth how to properly tend to sheep. She used the funds to purchase necessities to get the program off the ground, including translated versions of 4-H teaching material, grain, shears, sheep and more. With the help of local project leaders in Anbar, Kerstetter launched Iraq’s first two 4-H sheep clubs, each comprised of boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 14, more than 60 percent of whom were orphans.
In March 2010, the program began a vast expansion when Kerstetter volunteered to stay in Iraq for another year. With her extension, she was reassigned to a new post in Mahmudiyah Qada in South Baghdad. There, she continued to volunteer as 4-H organizer. With the help of U.S. and Iraqi government officials and local volunteers, Kerstetter established two additional 4-H clubs near Baghdad and took the steps to form a national 4-H organization, which is locally known as the Iraqi National Center for Youth Clubs 4-H, so the program could expand country-wide.
Kerstetter’s efforts paid off. By December 2010, 25 4-H clubs were established in Iraq and they established an official Iraqi 4-H website to help easily educate and share information across the country.
In May 2011, Kerstetter helped organize the first National 4-H Conference, a meeting of 4-H club leaders from all around Iraq at the al Saldeer Palace in Baghdad. More than 50 participants attended, including 4-H officials, U.S. and Iraqi government officials and guest speakers from local colleges and universities. During the meeting, the official Iraqi 4-H flag, which includes the signature 4-H clover and the colors of the Iraqi flag, was unveiled.
Before Kerstetter left Iraq, 42 4-H clubs had been established with more than 1,100 members. Though Kerstetter’s time in Iraq has come to an end and she is resuming her role as a resource conservationist for NRCS in Ellicottville, N.Y., she believes the program will grow and expand in her absence. Before her departure, both the U.S. and Iraqi governments discussed their commitment to helping keep the program alive and thriving.
In a country that has been devastated by years of violent conflict, the values and skills Iraqi youth are learning in 4-H clubs are helping achieve a more stable and successful future. Learn more about 4-H programs by visiting their website. Learn more about USDA’s international efforts by visiting the FAS homepage.