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Kailey Spicer, 14, of Waxhaw, one of the 4-H members leading the Books and Masks Drive community service project initiative, dropped off the donation. The boxes are located at the Union County Agricultural Center in the lobby.

We’re going to need the youth of America and Union County. We’re going to need them to be prepared to face the challenges the future will bring. A global pandemic has put a sharper focus on the economic and social gaps existing for kids in our communities — and the lack of resources and solutions to address the problem.

In a recent study, 4-H found that 7 out of 10 teens are currently struggling with mental health in some form including 55% experience anxiety, 45% stress, and 43% depression. Mental health is just one of the three issues that youth are facing. In addition, the opportunity gap is growing with 12 million youth who don’t have access to the internet at home and are missing out on virtual learning and connections. Youth who live in underserved communities with limited resources are most at risk. Lastly, it’s examining the lasting impact of the trauma from the pandemic. 64% of teens believe the trauma of COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on their generations’ mental health. Summer learning loss is expected to be significant following COVID-19 spring school closings.

As the country’s largest youth development organization and education’s first responder, 4-H launched the FOURWARD Fund. The purpose to raise funds to reach all kids with learning resources and caring mentors, and to close the ever-growing opportunity gap among our nation’s youth.

Now, how can you support youth during this time?

1. Reach kids in need. Union County 4-H delivered educational kits to youth who don’t have access to virtual learning opportunities like camps and academic support before school ended. We plan to find ways to connect with partnering organizations especially in limited-resource communities to provide more kits for their educational growth.

2. Support 4-H Clubs. 4-H clubs serve as the pillar for providing young people with caring adults and peers to help support them.

3. Create Solutions. Union County 4-H is working hard to develop research-based solutions with the help of NC 4-H and National 4-H to combat educational, mental health, and access-related challenges. In September, we will kick start a Wellness 4 You series focused on mental, physical, and social wellness for young people to learn some strategies and practices to implement in their daily lives. In October, we will host our first Family Mindfulness Day for families to do some hands-on activities, practice yoga, and learn some mindfulness tips and tricks to do at home.

4. Follow the Examples of Our Youth. A group of Union County 4-Hers — Amaris Elliott of Monroe, Hannah and Kailey Spicer of Waxhaw, and Maggie Jo White of Matthews attended the 4-H Citizenship North Carolina Focus, a conference held virtually this year that focus on advocacy, local government, state government, and action planning. The goal of the conference is to equip young people with the skills to succeed and improve the world around them. Through this experience, the group were charged to develop an action plan based on the needs in their community brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Their action plan was based on two needs — literacy and safety. Based on the needs, they created the Books and Masks Drive. The goal is to collect gently used and new school-aged books and handmade or newly purchased masks to donate and place inside the little library spaces around the county. Donations are collected from now until September 30 at the Union County Agricultural Center.

N.C. Cooperative Extension provides information to help people, businesses and communities solve problems, develop skills and build a better future. Extension specializes in agriculture, 4-H youth development, communities, food and nutrition, and the environment. To learn more about our programs, please visit: https://union.ces.ncsu.edu/.