Linda Nelson of Dallas Center, longtime director of the Dallas County office of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, was one of a record-breaking 126 volunteers from 92 counties inducted into the 2015 Iowa 4-H Hall of Fame in a ceremony last month at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
Nelson said she was honored to receive the award but also aware of the many worthy volunteers in Dallas County 4-H circles.
“When I first learned that I’d been chosen as the nominee from Dallas County, my first reaction was that there are so many other 4-H volunteers that deserve this award more than I do,” Nelson said. “I hope they will all know that I’m aware that I received this award because of all of their efforts as 4-H volunteers during my time as County Extension Education Director and that I am so very grateful for all the time and effort that they willingly volunteered for 4-H youth in our county.”
Nelson’s track record in Dallas County shows how much she deserves the Hall of Fame award. Building on her own youthful 4-H experiences in Montgomery County, she became an activist of sorts for 4-H causes in Dallas County over the course of her career, advocating steadily for a referendum to expand funding for county extension programs, a measure brought to a vote five times before it passed.
Nelson also worked with the Dallas County Board of Supervisors to secure money for 4-H programming and negotiated a special agreement with the Dallas County Conservation Board to share a staffer who would incorporate 4-H youth programming.
She joined with a group of volunteers to start the Dallas County Fair Silent Auction in order to raise funds for the referendum effort. When the referendum finally passed, the group continued their auctions and also formed the Dallas County 4–H Endowment, affiliating it with the Iowa 4-H Foundation.
These endowment funds now support 4-H members in activities beyond the county, such as the Citizen Washington Focus trip, and they also support individual 4-H members and clubs in larger citizenship projects.
Nelson attributes her knack for administrative team building and fundraising to her early 4-H lessons.
“That experience gave me practice and confidence in speaking before a group, taking responsibility for events and working with my peers to accomplish a task,” she said. “It was great preparation for being an Extension staff person.”
Nelson fondly recalled her 4-H membership in the Frankfort Clovia Clan of Montgomery County, including the skating parties, camping and other activities the 4-H club members did as a group.
Back then, however, boys and girls were separated into different clubs, she said.
“When I was a 4-H’er, the project areas for girls clubs consisted of food and nutrition, sewing and clothing construction and home furnishings, in a three-year rotation,” Nelson said. “Leaders were able to focus each year on one of these three program areas. If a girl wanted to show livestock, she had to join a livestock club. It was not uncommon for girls to belong to two 4-H clubs.”
Today, Nelson said, young people can enroll in everything from the traditional project areas to photography, rocketry, beekeeping, livestock and beyond — all while belonging to one club. As a result, club leaders need to be resourceful in helping young people find ways to learn about project areas that might be equally new to their leaders.
4-H volunteers with technical expertise in project areas also bring special learning opportunities for young members, and such volunteers are always in demand for their expertise.
“Club leaders today help youth see the opportunities within their club, at the county level and beyond,” Nelson said. “Their focus is really supporting youth, providing a safe place for them to try something new and encouraging leadership and citizenship in their clubs.”
Nelson said she still applies many of the lessons she learned as a youngster in 4-H.
“I learned a great deal about food preparation and nutrition that I use everyday,” she said. “It also gave me the opportunity to learn about sewing and clothing construction. When I have the time, I enjoy being at my sewing machine, making clothes for my grandkids and evening mending. I still get a lot of ‘Mom, can you fix this for me?'”
She has seen 4-H evolve within her lifetime. The essence of 4-H is still the same, she said, but the “way that 4-H delivers youth programming continues to change as the way youth learn continues to change. 4-H clubs look differently today. Some can be short-term clubs on one topic area, and some can be within a school setting, but 4-H still provides opportunities to involve youth in decision-making, leadership roles, public speaking and communication and community service.”
At the heart of the 4-H essence are the notions of service and betterment.
“One of the 4-H mottos is ‘To Make the Best Better,'” Nelson said “In all my work life and now in my volunteer life, I try to always work hard to improve upon how things are being done. It’s like always leaving things a little better than you found them and helping others move ahead.”
Even after retiring from her work with Dallas County Extension, Nelson still helps to move things ahead, such as in her involvement with Practical farmers of Iowa and her coordination of the Growing Food and Profit group, a network of small-scale local producers from Dallas County and its environs who have been meeting and sharing their practical knowledge of farming for nearly 10 years.
“I still love to cook — and eat — and am interested in healthy food choices,” Nelson said of the Growing Food and Profit group. “We know that Iowans need to improve the daily servings of fruits and vegetables in their diet. When I was approached about nine years ago about working with a group of local vegetable growers to help set up a network of growers to come together and share information, it seemed like a natural fit for me to assist with this. I use some of the same skills I learned in 4-H when coordinating this group: communication, leadership and working with others.”
Her efforts with the Growing Food and Profit group have profited many of its smmall farmers, according to longtime member Stacy Hartmann of Minburn.
“Linda is very talented and devoted to her vocation,” said Hartmann, owner of Small Potatoes Farm. “As an advocate for the local food movement in Dallas County, she has served as a significant resource for small, independent and aspiring farmers and entrepreneurs. Small Potatoes Farm certainly benefited from her efforts and leadership, and we are glad she is being honored with this award.”
Nelson embodies the 4-H ideals at their finest, a point made by Albert Grunenwald, executive director of the Iowa 4-H Foundation, when he praised all 92 of the Iowa 4-H Hall of Fame inductees at the August ceremony in Des Moines.
“When I look at all of the Hall of Fame inductees, I can’t help but marvel at the ripple effect from their contributions to the 4-H program,” Grunenwald said. “We are honored to be able to recognize the efforts of these special people.”
Inductees were selected by their home counties for their long service and dedication to 4-Hers. Among the honorees were club leaders, fair board members, council members, fair judges, financial supporters and ISU Extension staff members.
The Iowa 4-H Foundation provides funding for 4-H youth programs throughout the state, giving young people a chance to enhance their abilities in critical thinking, leadership, communication and social skills.