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Leah Goldade, 15, would normally be spending the early summer months preparing herself and her horses for competitions and the 4-H show at the Anoka County Fair.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, she’ll be working instead on a 4-H virtual horse training project at her home in Columbus, watching videos and checking in through video calls.

It’s far from her summer tradition of hanging around the fairgrounds with friends, but the online option means Goldade can still participate in 4-H, the extension program that promotes youth development through hands-on projects.

“I’m now being challenged to take the skills I’ve learned and demonstrate them in a different environment,” she said. “It honestly feels like what 4-H has been preparing us for all along.”

By the end of May, as the Minnesota State Fair and several county fairs were being called off, 4-H officials had begun planning alternative showcase opportunities. Since the start of the pandemic, 4-H members have been participating in virtual learning opportunities through Zoom and Flipgrid, a platform for video discussions.

Showcases in July and August to demonstrate skills and achievements may include social distancing with in-person judging of livestock, art or music, or involve a participant submitting a video presentation to a judge.

“We know that doing this online isn’t a replacement — we can’t replace the fair experience,” said Jennifer Skuza, the state 4-H director. “But we want to provide a meaningful alternative.”

Over the past few months, 4-H educators have been offering programming online, everything from classes taught from their own backyards to webinars with NASA aeronautical engineers. Others have created education kits for at-home projects.

“What we’ve seen is nothing but an outpouring of support and people who want to be a part of figuring this out for our youth,” Skuza said.

Still, she knows that many 4-H youth may have opted out for the summer and chosen other activities. “We just want to give several options so there’s still a way to have a 4-H experience,” she said.

For the first time in about a decade, Katelyn Rysavy’s summer won’t include a 4-H showcase at the Steele County Free Fair, called off this year due to the pandemic.

Rysavy, 18, loves the social aspect of 4-H and has participated in a wide variety of projects, from canning to showing goats and cattle. But without the fair, Rysavy, who has Down syndrome, likely won’t participate in 4-H this summer despite the virtual options.

“We’re just feeling like we don’t want to deal with it because it’d be so different for her,” said her mom, Cheryl Rysavy of Owatonna. “I think as it gets closer to August, there’s just going to be a whole emptiness about not being at the fair with her projects.”

Ellen Delp, 17, said her 4-H friends are working to maintain their connections but still grieving this year’s loss of the State Fair. The Fridley teen has long been a participant in the 4-H State Arts-In program, which culminates in performances at the Great Minnesota Get-Together.

“It’s such a cool thing to be up on stage, looking out at people’s faces and spreading a positive message,” Delp said. “I’m really going to miss that.”

Virtual options for 4-H performing arts programs include Zoom sessions with experts to talk about costume design, lighting and acting technique. Rather than a performance showcase, 4-H youth can present a project based on one of the topics.

Delp also has participated in the Youth Exploring Leadership and Learning Opportunities conference, which teaches civic engagement and leadership skills to 4-H youth. That was all virtual this year.

After months of distance learning, Delp admitted that virtual 4-H does sometimes feel like more school.

“I’m a little sick of sitting in front of the computer,” she said. “But it’s definitely worth it to keep doing 4-H.”

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440