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Guiding Our Nation's Youth | May/June 2022

by Hilary Rossow

Photos courtesy Jennifer Ringkob

A look at the life and responsibilities of a 4-H advisor.

The last two years have been difficult for nearly every industry. Volatile markets, job uncertainty, and unstable learning environments for children and educators have created quite a challenge for everyone involved. This is especially true for cattlewomen who are also educators and have children in school. Despite the array of challenges, 4-H leaders across the country have stepped up to guide youth to a better tomorrow.

Meet Jennifer Ringkob

One such leader is Jennifer Ringkob. She was born and raised in northeastern South Dakota on a Gelbvieh ranch, Pearson Cattle Company. She was very active in 4-H, sports, chorus, and was named Britton’s Snow Queen. Her passion for agriculture, helping others, and sharing her talents was evident from an early age.

Her passions led her to enroll at South Dakota State University to pursue a degree in history, with a minor in English fed by her love of literature and a desire to teach young people. She earned her Bachelor of Science and a secondary education certificate. Jennifer also taught English for 11 years.

On the Farm

After Jennifer met Chuck Ringkob at Little International while both were students at SDSU, the couple was married in 1995. After following Chuck’s career as a feed salesman for Kent Feeds for several years, the couple settled near Jennifer’s childhood home to help run the cattle operation. They then began to build PAR V Cattle Company, a nod to the five families involved: Jennifer’s parents and siblings and their spouses.

Currently, the PAR V herd has been expanded to include Maine Anjou and Chi-influence cattle. “The most important thing we look for around here is good cows with good udders that are good mommas. Maternal traits are important around here,” Jennifer Ringkob said of the PAR V cattle.

Most days, Jennifer starts by getting her daughter, Regan, off to school and making sure her husband, Chuck, and father, Neal, do not need help with the cattle, equipment, or both before heading to one of her two offices. In South Dakota, most Youth Program Advisors (YPAs) are responsible for multiple counties. Jennifer takes care of the youth of Day and Marshall Counties.

YPA Responsibilities

Her duties as a YPA are much more than ensuring fair entries are confirmed and handling everyday 4-H questions. Jennifer, like most YPAs, has many meetings, committees, teaching opportunities, and events to attend. Each county has several clubs with one or several club leaders.

County leaders meet a few times a year to discuss the county’s events, vision, issues, and needs. Additionally, groups within the county such as shooting sports, livestock judging, consumer decision making, robotics, dog, horse, and junior leaders have meetings, practices, and events to attend generally after office hours. Each receives excellent guidance from leaders within the county, but it is important that the YPA attends to keep a finger on the pulse of the crew while also answering questions and offering a helping hand.

The Cloverbuds curriculum for children under 8 years of age is an after-school program that offers projects, learning opportunities, and an introduction to 4-H from an early age. Jennifer provides Cloverbud instruction in each school once a month and enjoys the students’ energy and eagerness to learn.

As Jennifer’s salary is partially paid by the counties, she is also encouraged to attend county commission meetings and meet with county commissioners as needed throughout the month. Both counties have promotion and expansion committees that discuss marketing 4-H to the public and reaching non-members, underserved youth, and those not familiar with all that 4-H offers.

County Fair Tasks

Of course, two of the biggest projects any 4-H employee takes ownership of are the county fairs and the state fair. Many YPAs, including Jennifer, have volunteers at the county level that are instrumental in the planning and execution of these events, but hiring judges, coordinating volunteers, entry, weigh-in, and regulation oversight falls into Jennifer’s hands. This is also true of the county’s horse show, dog show, and Youth-in-Action events including fashion review, consumer decision making, special foods, public speaking and demonstrations, dairy cattle and livestock judging and Skillathon, and horse Youth-in-Action events.

In addition to the duties relevant specifically to Day and Marshall Counties, Jennifer is also the co-chair of the swine committee. The swine committee is not only responsible for the swine shows at the state fair, but it is also responsible for offering guidance for regulations regarding the swine project for all participants at the county level. “Our committee and volunteers as well as fellow YPAs make the swine show run like clockwork,” Jennifer said.

State Fair Duties

At the state fair, Jennifer and her co-chair, Sarah Koepke of Grant County, ensure all entries are sorted correctly for easy recall at weigh-in, facilitate weigh-in and check-in, create class lists based on entries, ensure all awards are present and correct, liaise with the judge, coordinate volunteers, and handle issues during check-in and the show. Throughout the fair, they oversee the load out and check out process, and ensure all pens are cleaned after check-out.

Additionally, Jennifer helps with the market beef weigh-in, breeding and market beef shows, and must ensure her static exhibits arrive at the fair, get judged, and are displayed to ensure each child’s project is showcased. Then all exhibits must be packed up at the end of the fair and hauled back to Day and Marshall Counties for the families to pick up with their awards. “It’s a real team effort. Most of us working those shows have a lot of experience, and we help each other out. I am so grateful for the people I have to help me get these shows done right.”

Family’s Show String

If all of that was not enough to keep her busy during the five days of the South Dakota State Fair, the PAR V crew also shows cattle during the fair. When her three children were younger, she could count on her fellow YPAs and volunteers to cover for her while she snuck away to watch her children show their animals in classes and often champion drives.

Although Chuck runs the show string like a well-oiled machine thanks to many capable hands, Jennifer is still occasionally called upon to help with the cattle during fair week. “4-H truly is a family affair, and the relationships we have cultivated and strengthened over the years are truly priceless,” Jennifer said of her years as an exhibitor, mom, and employee of 4-H.

Youth Leadership Opportunities

The Vision 2025 Strategic Plan works to achieve the goals of Vision 2025. Six advisors in the northeast corner of South Dakota work together to create leadership and learning opportunities for youth in the area. The 4-H Dash leadership mixers for junior leaders from twelve counties are being organized where 4-H Youth Ambassadors and local entrepreneurs will present and lead workshops. “These mixers will create new friendships and inspire new leaders,” Jennifer added.

Addressing Mental Health

Perhaps the most time-consuming yet rewarding project is a recent addition to Jennifer’s plate. Mental Health First Aid was first presented to all SDSU’s Extension staff in all departments at their annual fall conference in 2019.

The concept was introduced, and Jennifer along with several others became certified trainers to teach Mental Health First Aid to teens in high schools as well as adults in professional settings. “We are grateful to the National Council for Behavioral Health that provides training and materials for our team. During COVID, we transitioned from in person sessions to blended sessions where participants did pre-work on their own and joined an online training session to complete their certification. I taught numerous Youth MHFA classes in the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021 as people looked for ways to understand and assist others with mental health, especially during and following the pandemic. The SDSU Extension MHFA team is one I am very proud to be a part of,” Jennifer said.

Teen Mental Health First Aid was supported by Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. The main focus is identifying signs of mental illness and approaching the individual with compassion and resourcefulness. The program was presented online to trainers and included ten sessions. Since then, Mental Health First Aid has been presented by the members of the team in several high schools throughout South Dakota during school hours at no cost to the school or participants. “We want to give youth the tools to identify warning signs in their classmates and friends to ensure they get the help they need,” Jennifer explained.

“The action plan for Adult and Youth is ALGEE: Assess/Approach, Listen non-judgmentally, Give reassurance and information, Encourage appropriate professional help, Encourage self-help and other support strategies. The teen one is shortened to: Look, Ask, Listen, Help your Friend. Same concept, fewer words,” Jennifer summarized.

Mental Health Awareness

Providing information about basic symptoms to watch for, using noticing skills, and offering support with assurance that help is available are some of the things provided in the training. Creating an action plan of assessment, approach, listen, give support, help with self-care, get in contact with an adult, and provide aftercare is discussed in detail with videos, creating art, and open forums. Participants are encouraged to remove the negative stigma surrounding mental illness. “If you break your arm, you go to the doctor, maybe have surgery, and start the road to recovery. Mental health needs to be treated the same way, and we want to make sure these kids know there is help if they need it,” Jennifer said.

The team at SDSU Extension is working to provide training to adults as a combatant to the rise in mental health issues among people in rural settings largely due to fluctuating markets, weather issues, and undiagnosed, untreated mental illness. Reaching farmers and those working in agriculture is paramount.

Youth Ambassadors

The statewide junior leaders association has a program for youth to actively advocate for and market 4-H called “Youth Ambassadors.” This group is instrumental in advocating for South Dakota 4-H by sharing their experiences and knowledge through educational engagement and assisting with events at the local and state levels.

Recently, Jennifer became a mentor for the group which includes facilitating planning meetings and helping to organize their events. “We meet quarterly to review their action plan and goals. I encourage them and help them connect with the people and locate the resources they need to meet their goals. It is very rewarding to see these young leaders grow,” Jennifer said.

The Next Chapter

Jennifer also loves helping youth move on to their next chapter by writing letters of recommendation for scholarships, jobs, and college applications. She judges FFA CDEs and FCCLA contests and presented the keynote speech along with fellow YPA, Michelle May of Butte and Lawrence Counties, at the 2021 South Dakota Teen Leadership Conference. “There is no better feeling that seeing all the puzzle pieces fall into place for our youth, and I have a front row seat to guide and then watch them find their way. 4-H youth, and all our youth, all traveling unique paths. 4-H is an awesome program because there is something for everyone, and I have the privilege of being a part, albeit a small part, of building our future generation,” Jennifer said.

There is no doubt Jennifer is a valuable part of South Dakota 4-H as she generously gives of her time and knowledge. She is eager to learn new skills and improve her existing skills for the betterment of South Dakota’s youth. The past years’ challenges have buoyed her enthusiasm, resourcefulness, and adaptability to ensure the leaders, volunteers, and most importantly, the kids, are set up for success with their current projects and their lives after 4-H.

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