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NMSU Extension Service provides 4-H programs to special needs students

4-H programs have something for everyone, including students with special needs.

Woman with two students working with dough.
Cibola County Extension home economist Wendy Brown works with two Grants High School special needs students during the Special Chefs 4-H program in which the students learn life skills such as cooking and sewing. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service agents in Cibola, Torrance and Sandoval counties are providing programs for special needs students.

Wendy Brown, Cibola County program director, home economist and 4-H agent, saw the need to develop curriculum and project units for special needs people when she joined NMSU's faculty in 2008.

"Since I had worked with special needs children for 15 years, I realized we needed to do this special 4-H program right away," Brown said of the program that has been meeting each week for the past four years. "I approached Cibola County School District's life skills teachers Rachal Reddington and Gae Zeller to suggest we do the program, and they agreed that the curriculum for the life skills class for the high school students and the young adult program for people ages 18 to 22 goes hand-in-hand with the 4-H projects."

With that collaboration, the Special Chef program was born.

"We are lucky to have this program available to our school district," Reddington said. "It's a great program. It is highly beneficial for the students. It is helping us to get them community ready and to become productive individuals."

The main goal of the program, which meets each Wednesday at 10:30 a.m., is to help the students develop life skills by participating in various projects, such as cooking a variety of foods from cookies to tortillas and making natural bird feeders by sprinkling bird seed on peanut butter covered pine cones.

Brown has modified New Mexico Flavor and Clover Bud 4-H projects to make them developmentally appropriate for the special needs students.

"We have looked at each 4-H project unit to see how we can adapt it to this special group of people," Brown said. "It involves how we give directions, such as making them readable with bigger print and pictures to show them which tools are needed in the project. We also use techniques that help them learn, such as hands-on so they have the tactile stimulation."

One key component of each meeting is to enhance the students' self-esteem.

"We do not want to make it where they feel they are unable to do the task," Brown said. "You want them to feel capable of doing the task, just like anyone else."

During each activity of the Special Chef program, Brown educates the students about nutrition and healthier living.

"Obesity and diabetes are prevalent in our country and are key factors in our county's health needs assessment," Brown said. "Our Extension programs, including this one, are working to educate people about healthier cuisines by introducing them to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's My Plate program where they learn what is a healthy diet and the proper serving sizes of the five food groups."

Among the components Reddington and Zeller want their students to learn are the resources within the community they can access after they leave the school district's program.

"One such resource is Extension. By having them come to the Extension office for this program, hopefully they will know where to come if they need assistance in areas in which the Extension agents can help," Reddington said.

Brown is adding her adaptations to the 4-H project units and sharing them with other county 4-H agents. As a result, Torrance and Sandoval counties are presenting similar programs.

The special needs class at Bernalillo High School formed the Bernalillo Warrior 4-H Club three years ago. Sandoval County Extension 4-H agents Nicole Lujan and Steve Lucero meet with the 10 members once or twice a month.

"It's really neat," Lujan said. "They have a 4-H flag and the 4-H pledge is posted in the classroom. Before each meeting they say the pledge, just like any club."

Each year the students decide which projects they would like to do. They have done gardening and Duded up Denim, where the students embellish denim to make photo frames and magnets, as well as the Uniquely New Mexico and New Mexico Flavor projects.

"We provide the supplies for the projects," Lujan said. "After they are done with the activities, I keep the items and submit them in the county fair. If they get first place then we take them on to the state fair."

After the fairs are over, Lujan takes the items back to the club members, including any ribbons they have won.

"One of the students was so excited that he had won a ribbon that he ran around the classroom saying, 'I got second place!' That's what makes this such a special program to provide. They are so enthusiastic about being in 4-H," she said.

"One parent told us that 4-H has made such an impact in her daughter's life. She said all her daughter talks about is 4-H when she comes home on club day."

For the past two years, Corina Neish, Extension home economist in Torrance County, has taught basic nutrition, food preparation and food safety through 4-H projects to the special education class at Mountainview Elementary School in the Moriarty-Edgewood School District.

"The classes teach the kids life skills and it gives them an opportunity to learn how to create nutritious meals or snacks on their own by actually doing the project," Neish said of the hour-long class she teaches twice a month.

"The kids love to make tortillas. They enjoy mixing the ingredients together and being able to roll out the dough. I think the dough manipulation is what they enjoy the most," she said.

"The program also offers the kids a chance to be involved in educational activities outside of their everyday curriculum."