By Rod Santa Ana, AgriLife Today | Photos by Luis Saldana, AgriLife Extension
After a decade of taking young 4-H leaders on a yearly retreat to plan activities for the coming year, the exercise had become routine. This year, Extension specialist Luis Saldaña came up with a better idea: Pack up the 4-H’ers in a passenger van and go to each one of the county courthouses within their South Texas jurisdiction, also known as District 12.
The result was a whirlwind 48-hour, 1,000-mile tour of 20-plus courthouses (mostly old), and an unmatched bonding experience, all of which was posted on social media Aug. 2-3 garnering hundreds of followers.
“A lot of these kids had never been to all the counties in District 12, so it was an outstanding educational experience for them,” said Saldaña, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service program specialist for 4-H and youth development in Weslaco. “Plus we got our planning for the year done, which includes community service activities, leadership summer camp, and involvement in various district events for the year.”
The 4-H council officers who took the trip represent 4,500 4-H’ers in South Texas. They are elected yearly in a process much like a presidential election, complete with an election convention, a campaign season, three-minute platform speeches, registered delegates who vote online, and election judges who officially canvass votes.
“This year, in addition to their platform speeches, candidates had to defend their positions on bills filed in the last session of the Texas 4-H Congress, a realistic mock legislative session held at the state capitol,” Saldaña described.
The election process was one of many activities the council leaders had to plan out, only this year they did it on their extended road trip.
“Our annual leadership workshop and planning session is usually done in ‘retreat fashion,’ where we isolate ourselves in one location to focus on our planning tasks, but not this year,” Saldaña reported.
The van left Weslaco on a Friday at 3 p.m. and returned at 3 p.m. Sunday. Little did the courthouse tourists realize the highway bonding exercise they were in for, Saldaña quipped.
“Without telling them the plan, I’d pull over every 100 miles, and I’d pull over every time we crossed a county line, and at each stop I’d have them change seats,” he reminisced. “The idea was to get the 4-H leaders to sit next to someone new so they could all get to know each other.”
There was also a contest thrown in.
“I told them that if anyone could guess how I was determining when to stop, they could sit in the seat of their choosing for the remainder of the tour.”
Only one did, late in the tour. Hunter Meyer of Kleberg-Kenedy County figured out why the van was stopping at each county line.
Other 4-H’ers on the tour included: David Gebert, Jim Wells County; Bailey Scogin, Willacy County; Claudia Martinez, Hidalgo County; Hayley Meyer, Kleberg-Kenedy County; Reagan Ashley, Cameron County; Ruben Saldaña Jr., Hidalgo County; Robyn Perez, Hidalgo County; and Krista Olivarez, Hidalgo County.
“Stopping at each county courthouse was fascinating for everybody, myself included,” Saldaña stated. “Some courthouses are modern structures, but most were built decades ago in various elaborate European styles. And some counties had two courthouses, one for administrative functions and the other for judicial proceedings. Over the years they’d simply outgrown their original courthouses.”
At some stops the group was met at the courthouse by local 4-H members and/or AgriLife Extension county agents.
“The biggest 4-H delegation that came out to meet us was in Rio Grande City in Starr County,” Saldaña recounted. “Kingsville 4-Hers also greeted us. County agents met us in Dimmit, Atascosa and Maverick counties. The greeters gave us a little history about their county and their courthouse facilities.”
When asked for their comments, all had positive memories of the courthouse road trip.
“I thought it was an excellent way to get to know my fellow officers and the county agents from across the district,” Ashley said.
“I had fun,” Olivarez recalled. “I got to know everybody better, and it was a great learning experience.”
Ruben Saldaña Jr. joked that he had physical memories of the trip.
“My back still kinda hurts from the trip, but I’m very satisfied knowing that I visited each county courthouse in District 12. It was great; definitely a new experience. But no matter where we were, we always worked hard to plan our yearly events.”
Perez thinks other 4-H’ers should experience the courthouse road trip.
“We bonded so well and learned about things we may not have known about our districts and other council members,” she shared. “It was a great experience, and I hope other 4-H members have the same opportunity to serve and get to know their districts this way.”
Saldaña is a 22-year veteran of AgriLife Extension, having served the last 14 years as 4-H program specialist.
Texas 4-H is administered by AgriLife Extension. More than 640,000 youth ages 8-18 are involved in 4-H programs and activities throughout the state each year.
For more information, contact Saldaña at 956-968-5581 or email email@example.com. Find more stories, photos, videos and audio at http://today.agrilife.org.