HAMILTON TOWNSHIP - Cheryl Neveling broke off her slow early evening stroll and rode Judge, her 10-year-old horse, up to the fence.

Why is she involved in 4-H?

"It's just a lot of different things that you do," the 14-year-old Nesco resident said. "I've learned a lot from 4-H."

She was at the fairgrounds Wednesday to practice with her drill team. They and the several dozen others at the fairgrounds were busy prepping for next week's annual Atlantic County 4-H Fair.

More than 6.5 million kids and young adults now take part in 4-H programs, learning values that leaders say give them lifelong lessons and help them grow into adulthood.

The programs were founded in the early part of the 20th century as a way to make education more practical for rural students. Founders also sought to teach future farmers about the latest advancements in agriculture. Officials had found that while their parents proved resistant, the children learned quickly.

It got its name because it sought to develop the head, heart, hands and health.

Programs related to 4-H soon spread to more than 80 countries around the world, expanding from agricultural best practices to a wide array of interests, from horses to baton twirling and robotics. For many programs, the year still culminates in the annual summertime 4-H fair.

Cape May, Cumberland, and Ocean counties held their 4-H fairs in July. Atlantic County holds its fair from Aug. 8 to 10 at the David C. Wood 4-H Fairgrounds, 3210 Route 50, in Hamilton Township.

An array of people have taken part in 4-H programs, including Jackie Kennedy Onassis, NFL star Reggie White and country singer Johnny Cash.

Barbara Wooton was "into horses when (she) was a kid," but first got involved with 4-H when her daughter Michelle Wooton wanted to work with them.

Then it was her granddaughter Kristin Bakely's turn. When Bakely left the program after working with three separate horses, the kids Wooton helped mentor started introducing their children to 4-H.

"I want to retire, but the kids won't let me," joked Barbara Wooton, 68, of Mullica Township.

Wooton said she has seen the benefits of the program in the graduates.

Caring for horses, she said, "it teaches you such values. It isn't a situation where they take care of it for you. You learn the terms and the medical needs. You take care of it."

One of her program graduates is a college professor in Pennsylvania, she said. Another is an Air Force pilot. A third is a horse trainer in Montana.

The 4-H program, she said, "gave them the personality and the drive to make themselves better."

Charles "Bucky" Michel said he has also seen the 4-H program make participants more "worldly" in his 15 years volunteering with the organization.

The 51-year-old Galloway Township resident is with the livestock club, which he said could mean anything from earthworms to cattle. It is instructive, he said.

"By raising and having animals, (participants) learn there's a cost to it, there's an object to it and there's a life cycle to it," Michel said. Kids in the program, he said, "will take responsibility."

A bigger problem, he said, are parents who do not have enough free time to supervise their children's involvement in the program.

"The last thing they want to do on a weekend is take junior out to work with the sheep," Michel said. "The kids who do get the support do get to see a way better understanding of life."

Joni Grunow, 57, got her start when she was nine. The mother of the Mullica Township resident was a leader in the drum and bugle corps and Grunow joined the baton-twirling program.

She's stayed with them since, even though she said membership has decreased over the years.

The best reasons to join, she said, are the diverse activities it offers. The 4-H is not just for farm kids, even though it helps kids raise everything from guinea pigs and rabbits to horses and steer. Said Grunow, "We have baton twirling, clogging and tae-kwon-do."

Back at the fairgrounds, the sounds of kids raking leaves mixed with adults cutting the grass and cutting away hazardous metal, as they readied the fairgrounds.

Rachel Skinner, 13, eagerly helped get things ready. A dedicated horse aficionado, the Mays Landing resident willingly volunteers her time to the program. She explained, "You make a lot of friends and it's pretty much all about horses, so that's why I joined."

Contact Derek Harper:

609-272-7046

Follow Derek Harper on Twitter @dnharper

To attend the fair

What: The annual Atlantic County 4-H Fair

When: Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 8-10; the hours are 12:30 to 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday

Where: David C. Wood 4-H Center and Fairgrounds, 3210 Route 50, Hamilton Township