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With the cancellation of county fairs across the region, most recently the Champaign County Fair, 4-H members have had to find a new way to showcase their fair projects this year.

As has been the case with so many other meetings and events occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic, 4-H organizers turned to the internet for a solution to this issue.

4-H members will showcase their fair projects digitally by uploading videos and photos of their projects through the University of Illinois Extension.

While the cancellation of the fair was sad, organizers are looking to make the best out of the virtual showings this year.

“That the fair was cancelled, I was kind of sad, but, as for our shows, since our shows weren’t cancelled, we were just focused on going in a new direction and trying to make this as good of an event and as fun of an event for the kids as we possibly can,” Mynda Tracy, 4-H Youth Development Educator for the University of Illinois Extension, said.

“The fair’s been a huge part of my life for a long time, so I was sad to see it cancelled, but I’m very happy we’re still able to offer kids a chance to showcase all the hard work they’ve done throughout the year,” Amanda Bryant Brown, Extension Program Coordinator.

“It’s definitely a different platform and it’s a learning curve for all of us, but I think it will open some doors on how things will go in the future,” Cara Thiems, 4-H Youth Development Extension Program Coordinator, said. “A fair is a big part of every 4-Her’s summer and it’s sad that it’s going to be in a different setting this year, but we’re very fortunate that we have the backing from the state to still give them a virtual option and let them still showcase everything they have learned and worked really hard for.”

Tracy, Brown and Thiems coordinate 4-H efforts throughout the region through the University of Illinois Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion County Extension.

Magdalena Casper-Shipp, an Extension Office Support Associate in Danville, described how 4-Hers will enter their projects for the virtual showings.

Casper-Shipp said 4-H members will upload project reports about their projects utilizing a slideshow that showcase the different elements of their project. These slideshows will then be viewed judges virtually.

“They’ll assess them the same way they would have in-person,” she said.

Asked how 4-Hers reacted when they virtual showing system was announced, Casper-Shipp said there was some apprehension, but feels that 4-Hers have gotten used to the idea.

“I think when this first came out there was a lot of apprehension, but, now that people are actually uploading, I haven’t heard anything bad,” she said.

Early on, Tracy said, the 4-Hers had hoped that in-person showings would be possible, but they’ve since adapted to the idea of showing virtually.

“I feel that the youth and the parents are understanding, given our current situation, and I feel they’re grateful that we’re doing something alternative instead of just saying nothing,” she said. “I’ve heard positive feedback that we’re at least offering an experience for the youth. It might not be the same experience that they’re used to, but we are offering an experience for them to showcase their mastery.”

Tracy added that everyone is still learning how to handle this new system together.

“We’re all learning together,” she said. “It’s been a learning experience and learning is never a bad thing, right?”

Beyond being a learning experience, Tracy also feels that the experience has served to bring 4-H members and staff closer together.

“It’s brought us closer too,” she said. “We’ve had a lot more calls with leaders and parents and youth and our Federation youth have really stepped up and are helping us create tutorial videos.”

Naomi Dolan and Hannah Beck are two Vermilion County 4-H Federation members who have been helping out during the pandemic.

Dolan and Beck helped lead tutorials for 4-H members and families on how to upload their projects for the virtual showings.

Dolan and Beck have also been leading a call to action project through which they are collecting face masks and puzzlebooks that will be mailed out to nursing homes.

“Normally, we do a county-wide community service project some time during the spring or summer where all of our clubs can come together and do a community service project together,” Beck said. “Since we’re not able to do that, we decided to do something more along the lines of drop-off donations. Our clubs are still able to get together and collect stuff, but it’s not going to be in-person.”

The federation has also started a 4-H Bingo Challenge via the Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, Vermilion County 4-H Facebook page along with video tutorials for various projects.

Dolan said the bingo board has a bunch of different ways youth can get involved in their communities and at home. Anyone who completes five of the squares in a row and posts on the Facebook page will win a prize.

Dolan was sad to hear that the fair was cancelled this year, but feels that the staff and leaders have done a great job setting up the virtual showings.

“As a 4-Her, everything I had been preparing was going to be for a real fair, so it was, as everybody else has said, it was pretty sad to hear we weren’t going to get the in-person experience, but our wonderful staff and everybody has been trying their best to give us the best possible option that we could have,” Dolan, who serves as Vermilion County 4-H Federation Vice President, said.

Dolan said she’s been reaching out to her friends in 4-H to see about setting up Zoom meetings to showcase their projects to each other so they can still get that communal experience that comes from sharing projects with friends.

“It was sad to hear [about the fair], but I’m still very happy and glad that I still get to have something,” she said.

Speaking about any positives that have come out of this year’s experience, Dolan feels that 4-H leaders, members and parents have really come together to provide the best experience possible.

She said she’s been able to work with her 4-H club and the Extension staff and has learned more about technology along the way.

“So, even though there’s the negative side of not being there in-person and not being able to talk to the judge about my project, I’m still going to get to do that, but then, along the way, I’ve still learned and gathered a ton of new skills that I will be able to use in the future,” she said. “I’m sad and grateful for this opportunity at the same time.”

Dolan will be showing five projects this year including subjects such as interior design, family heritage, cat, photography and visual arts scrapbooking.

Dolan outlined how she planned to create slides detailing the various elements of each project and the work she put into them. For her cat project, Dolan said she planned on taking photos and video of her cat and recording her observations regarding the conditions of his fur, skin, etc. For family heritage, Dolan intends to create a slideshow highlight old family photos and stories.

“It’s similar to what I would do in a normal, real-life fair setting, except I won’t be directly talking with the judge,” she said.

For Beck, who serves as Vermilion County 4-H Federation President, her project are more focused on livestock.

She’s been working with her steer for nine months, providing daily care and training him for the showing, and for her virtual showing she plans to take a video showing all sides of him for the judges. Beck will also be showing pigs and will need to make a similar videos for each of them.

Asked how she felt that the fair was cancelled this year, Beck said she was disappointed, especially since she’s a 10-year-member and this will be her final year showing.

“That was kind of disappointing, that I couldn’t spend my last year at the fair with my fair family,” she said. “That’s my favorite time of year, fair week, getting to see everyone and spend time with them and make fun memories.”

Asked if they thought any of these online elements will be incorporated into showings in the future, Thiems said that would be a difficult call to make.

“We know now that we have the ability to do it, but I feel like the in-person shows are just a great opportunity for the kids to sit down and speak with the judge,” she said. “That’s one of the biggest drawbacks of this, the kids and the judges aren’t speaking with each other and giving feedback in person.”

Tracy reiterated that the organizers are still learning about the virtual system, but learning about the system has brought everyone together.

“I think this is uncharted territory and we’re all still learning,” she said. “And we’ve had really great families and leaders and volunteers. When I say it’s brought us closer together, I think, as a whole, everybody’s kind of stepped up and worked together to make this the best experience that we possibly can.”

Tracy said they’ve had to step up their communication efforts since they couldn’t see each other face-to-face.

“We’ve definitely been communicating a lot more,” she said. “I don’t know if this would have happened 15 years ago, so I am grateful for technology.”

Tracy feels there will be positives that come out of this experience.

“I think that there are going to be positives that come out of this,” she said. “It definitely doesn’t replace face-to-face. I miss seeing the kids. I’m definitely going to miss seeing their projects. That’s alway a wonderful thing to see all they have created and learned.”

One positive she mentioned is how this has drawn everybody together.

“One positive I’ve really noticed is how everybody has stepped up to the plate,” she said. “Everybody is working together to help create this experience for our youth and that’s been really wonderful to be a part of.”

Thiems echoed Tracy’s comment that the Extension and 4-H were making the best of the situation.

“This is not something anybody wants, but there are a lot of things that have been taken away from youths, graduating seniors and sporting events, and things like that,” she said. “We’re just trying to make the best of the situation and still give them the best experience possible.”

To learn more about the virtual showings this year, visit https://extension.illinois.edu/events/2020-05-20-virtual-show-2020-cfiv.