Keeping Youth at Heart

Camps & Retreat Centers, Conference & Business Centers

How one Unique Venues member is making a difference

In some parts of the world, there are children who believe Donald T. Floyd, Jr. is the “second president” of the United States. It’s not that they’re uneducated; they just have to believe that someone who has done so much for them would be just that important.

The sentiment was apparent as a group of visiting children from Kenya gifted the retiring president and CEO of the National 4-H Council with a special painting on December 4—the organization’s annual Youth at Heart Day—and thanked Floyd for the many gifts and opportunities he has provided them and their peers over the past several years.

The exchange was just one of the more emotional moments during the celebration, a company-wide event when business shuts down and all 170 employees travel to gather at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland to reflect on all the positive ways they have been able to impact 6 million young lives throughout the year.

Founded in 1902, the mission of the organization is to “empower youth to reach their full potential while working and learning in partnership with caring adults.” The four Hs in 4-H—Head, Heart, Hands, and Health—represent the four values members work on through exciting and engaging programs. While it was founded by a school principal in rural Ohio for agricultural purposes such as teaching youth to become self-sufficient, today the focus has evolved into educating youth in science, technology, math, and engineering (STEM), food security and healthy living.

With national clubs and programs, and international reach throughout the Global Clover Network, there have been countless opportunities for these dreams to be realized. Even more, the supportive environment of the flagship National 4-H Youth Conference Center makes the 35,000 students who visit each year feel right at home.

“When they come here, some of the students do feel inspired to aspire higher, to be something that they never thought they could be before, and we want to be an environment that creates that life-changing experience,” says Sarah Vining, the venue’s marketing manager.

Inside the building she says there are pool tables, a basketball court, café, 525-seat auditorium, overnight accommodations with bunk beds and educational programs that offer itineraries for touring the capitol—all geared towards creating a sense of community and inspiring action.

“We try to create an environment where the students will be comfortable, a place that will foster leaders, current or future, and provide them opportunities to develop.” Although Vining notes that, since opening in 1959, the conference center has welcomed adult and youth groups, schools remain their largest market, which reaps the greatest benefits.

“We have a lot of teen leadership groups that stay here and receive training in the hopes that one day they will become leaders in fields such as nonprofit or political divisions,” she says, noting another program welcomes 4-H’ers to meet with their senator and local congressmen to discuss key issues in their community. “They develop action plans, and then when they go home, they are expected to actually take the steps to make change happen.”

Examples of the positive experiences were on full display at this year’s Youth at Heart celebration, such as a group of 4-H youth from Oregon called the Tech Wizards, part of a mentorship program where teens learn skills in engineering, robotics and technology. “These were students who were once not engaged. They were getting into trouble, some turning to gangs, but when they found the Tech Wizards it gave them another outlet,” says Vining of the group’s impact. “It’s pretty amazing to hear about someone who had no hope and is now studying something as challenging as mechanical engineering.”

The other group of students from Kenya shared their story of transformation from going hungry and fighting for food on the playground to learning how to grow their own banana trees that were so fruitful, they were able to invite their parents to share in lunch at school every day.

“As a country we could take so many notes from these students; they are so concerned about each other, making sure everyone is okay,” says Vining. “They’re always so grateful and thanking us for everything we do, but really Youth at Heart Day reminds us to thank them.”