Empowering Maine Youth: The inspiring journey of Jessica Woodcock, a UMaine Extension 4-H volunteer

Jessica Woodcock, UMaine Extension volunteer
Jessica Woodcock

Jessica Woodcock’s remarkable journey began seven years ago when she reached out on social media, seeking opportunities for her daughters to volunteer. Little did she know that this simple Facebook post would lead her to an extraordinary path of personal growth and community impact as a University of Maine Cooperative Extension 4-H volunteer. Intrigued by UMaine Extension’s mission to provide hands-on learning experiences to young individuals, Woodcock took a leap of faith and started her own 4-H club, initially comprising just six members, including her own two daughters.

“We started out as a general interest club with me knowing absolutely nothing about 4-H and just trying to figure it out as we go with support from Extension county staff,” she said. “And every year I learned a little bit more about ‘Oh that’s how that works,’ or ‘Yes, I can do that.’”

Naming her club GLEE, an acronym for Grow, Learn, Explore, and Educate, Woodcock quickly became deeply involved in the 4-H community. After managing her first projects, attending her first fair and public speaking event, and with the support and encouragement of Extension staff, she soon found her true calling in nurturing the growth and development of Maine’s youth.

“4-H is this hidden gem,” said Woodcock. “It doesn’t matter what opportunity it is, it is an amazing one. It doesn’t matter if it is a regular club meeting once a month or something else. It really gives the kids that space to grow and explore so many opportunities.”

Within the first year alone, Woodcock realized that 4-H provided an invaluable opportunity for young individuals to learn in practical and engaging ways not only about agriculture and the environment but also entrepreneurship and public speaking. No matter their background or interests, she said, through the program, club members are able to explore their passions and unlock their full potential.

“4-H is huge. Just in our group alone, members have raised money for buddy benches, which are for anti-bullying. They have started food pantries in their schools. They are volunteering at church,” she said. “One of my members has created an organic soap line that she is now selling at a doctor’s office and sharing with the community. She is also now speaking out about national products and the entrepreneurship of learning how to run a small business.”

Among the various opportunities provided by 4-H, Woodcock highlights public speaking as one of the most transformative experiences for the youth. She said she has witnessed firsthand the growth and confidence that public speaking has instilled in her own two daughters, now aged 13 and 15. It has shaped them into confident young leaders.

“My daughters are now into their sixth year of public speaking and that is really noticeable as well as with other members who have done public speaking. Very noticeable against their peers. How they speak with adults in the community and how during school presentations there is not that stress level and the panic level when it comes to presenting in front of their class,” she said. “They know how to be prepared, how to create an outline, they know how to practice and they are comfortable speaking in front of people.”

She added, “It is not something that I learned at that age. It just blows my mind, because when I was in middle school I would rather hide under a desk than talk in front of my classmates. Even in high school I remember being terrified about public speaking. So, to be able to have my kids and some of the other kids in the group have that opportunity and gain that confidence at such a young age is immeasurable.”

For Woodcock, the most rewarding part of being a UMaine Extension 4-H volunteer is witnessing the transformation in the lives of the youth she works with. She has seen shy, introverted individuals blossom into confident leaders through their involvement in 4-H. The skills they acquire – from teamwork to communication – are “just remarkable life skills for them going forward.”

“I have watched some kids come in who were really, really anxious and nervous to try something new and then you watch them over the course of the year and see what they have accomplished. It is really cool to have a small part in all of that,” she said.

As Woodcock continues her journey with UMaine Extension 4-H, she remains grateful for the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of Maine’s youth. She believes that investing in the younger generation is crucial for the development and prosperity of the community as a whole. With the help of Extension and the university, she has been able to offer opportunities that go beyond the boundaries of a traditional classroom setting, providing young individuals with unique chances for growth and personal development.

“(Extension and the university) have been phenomenal and so supportive. They will do almost anything to make it happen for us as volunteers. It is like no idea is a bad idea. I think, it is very overwhelming at first, but the more you peel back the layers, the more opportunities you learn about,” she said. “And now I am watching my group of 4-H members from the age of 13 to 17 who are now mentoring other 4-Hers that are coming in at the age of 5 to 9 and they are creating workshops, making them feel safe to learn and explore.”

Woodcock’s impact is felt not just within her club, but far and wide. Through her selfless dedication, she has become a beacon of hope, inspiring others to follow in her footsteps and make a difference in their own communities.

“Jessica’s commitment to empowering the next generation is truly inspiring. With her unwavering passion and dedication, she serves as an inspiration to others, showcasing the transformative power of volunteerism and the mission organizations like UMaine Extension 4-H has,” said Jen Lobley, Extension 4-H volunteer development and Extension educator. “Her story is a testament to the profound impact one person can have to make a difference in the lives of Maine’s youth.”

Reflecting on her own journey and the 20 children she has mentored over the years, Woodcock finds it challenging to put into words the immense impact that the program and her club has had on her life.

“I would probably need a significant amount of time and a lot of journaling to be able to really put into words what these kids have done for me. I accept the kids when they walk through the door as for who they are, what they bring to the table and what they want to do. But for them to let me unapologetically be myself, make mistakes, and be vulnerable and ask them questions as well and to be able to learn from them, it is something you can’t measure,” she said.”These kids have given me more than I can ever give them.”

Determined to continue her involvement until circumstances no longer permit, she hopes to inspire others to follow in her footsteps and make a difference in their own communities, even if it involves making a mistake or two and taking it one day at a time.

“4-H is truly amazing. The opportunities (the kids) have and how I am able to facilitate those opportunities is incredible. (It is countless hours but it is all for a good cause),” she said. “I am glad I just dove in and didn’t think about how big of a puddle it was that I dove into. I don’t think there is a no better opportunity for Maine youth than 4-H, truly.”