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Outstanding Virginia 4-H members honored with annual Youth in Action awards

Virginia 4-H
The 2022 Youth in Action award winners: Andrea Farag, left; Brayden Jones, bottom-center; Eleni Kasianides, top-center; and Sophia Crowder, right. Photos courtesy Virginia Tech.

Virginia 4-H honored four of its most outstanding members at a virtual award ceremony in early 2022. The 4‑H Youth in Action Program recognizes four confident young leaders with diverse backgrounds and unique perspectives in 4-H core pillar areas: agriculture, civic engagement, healthy living, and STEM.

Andrea Farag received the award for civic engagement; Brayden Jones received the award for agriculture; Eleni Kasianides received the award for healthy living; and Sophia Crowder received the award for STEM. Additionally, Farag was selected the Overall Youth in Action Award winner and will receive additional opportunities to be a spokesperson for Virginia 4-H.

“The Youth in Action recipients showcase the best of Virginia 4-H and embody what 4-H brings out in all of Virginia’s youth as they chart their own path and success,” said Jeremy Johnson, Virginia state 4-H leader.

Each of the four winners received a $500 mini-grant to develop a significant community project, recognition at a formal award ceremony, a full scholarship to attend the Virginia State 4-H Congress in Blacksburg, an opportunity to be featured as the Virginia 4-H youth spokesperson for their pillar, and support and mentorship to apply for the 2022 National 4-H Youth Leadership Awards.

“These experiences have shaped me into an exceptional young leader within Virginia 4-H and my community as a whole,” Farag said.

Farag, a resident of Chesterfield County, saw her experience with Virginia 4-H rapidly evolve after attending the 2019 Teen Summit, at which she discovered her 4-H passion: teen empowerment.

She pushed for more events and opportunities planned and shaped by youth for youth. She saw this model work through teen-adult partnerships and worked to make this model – with some minor adjustments – all to improve Virginia 4-H. One example of Farag’s work is the evolution of the Virginia 4-H Teen Summit. What started as an adult-led initiative is now driven by a team of select youth.

“These experiences have shaped me into an exceptional young leader within Virginia 4-H and my community as a whole,” Farag said. “4-H has impacted so many different aspects of my life. I have made significant enhancements to my personal life with goal setting, professional skills as an entrepreneur, and educational work ethic as a student. I’ve learned to be persistent, build confidence, take the initiative to lead, and recognize when I need to ask for help from my team.”

Farag has been involved with 4-H for a decade.

“I was not always confident in finding my place in the world where I felt I could thrive because of my challenges. 4-H has always been accepting of me for who I am. I have discovered talents and strengths through the 4-H program,” Jones said.

Jones, a six-year 4-Her from Fluvanna County, said that 4-H helped him develop confidence and public speaking skills in spite of many challenges he faced in childhood. Jones was diagnosed with mild ataxic cerebral palsy, sensorineural hearing loss, and a vision condition called Duane’s syndrome.

“Navigating the world has always been challenging for me,” Jones said. “I was not always confident in finding my place in the world where I felt I could thrive because of my challenges. 4-H has always been accepting of me for who I am. I have discovered talents and strengths through the 4-H program in serving others, speaking on issues I have a passion for, and enjoying photography. This could lead to careers for me in public service and related fields, which I will be exploring as I get older. Through 4-H, I learned that I have a heart of service and that I would like to pursue opportunities to speak more at events like that to help inspire others overcoming challenges with disabilities.”

As a 4-H horse ambassador, Jones spoke at Sprouts Therapeutic Riding Center in Northern Virginia regarding how to push through personal challenges. Jones also discussed how 4-H helped him – and how it could help those in the audience, too.

“It was evident that they were very accepting of us and intrigued by the opportunities that we spoke to in the 4-H program,” Jones said. “Given all I have had to overcome with my own disabilities, it is important to me to help others with disabilities. I want to inspire them to join 4-H, empower them to not be held back by their own challenges.”

“Without 4-H, I would not have had the courage or means to grow this project,” Kasianides said.

Kasianides, a resident of Loudon County, used her passion for mental health to improve the mental wellbeing of the elderly.

During a conversation with her grandmother in 2020, Kasianides, a seven-year 4-Her, heard how sad she was from being isolated during a pandemic. Kasianides wanted to do something about it – but not just for her grandmother. She wanted to help others in her area.

Kasianides got the numbers and addresses of assisted living facilities near where she lived and asked them if they wanted to participate in a program where youth sent cards to the residents. After a resounding “yes” from a variety of places, Kasianides gathered her 4-H club, which was active virtually, and rallied the troops.

“Elderly mental health isn’t talked or thought about often,” Kasianides said. “I want to focus more on bringing attention to it since these people were the backbone of our community. One card could raise someone’s spirits and be remembered for a long time. Without 4-H, I would not have had the courage or means to grow this project.”

Since the program started, Kasianides and her fellow 4-Hers have sent more than 500 cards across nine states, and hope to include more 4-H clubs in the near future.

Crowder, a four-year 4-Her from Mecklenburg County, joined 4-H in eighth grade as a TechChangermaker, a 4-H program that promoted computer science literacy among teens trying to make a difference within their communities.

“This program taught me so much not just about the technical aspects of computing and technology, but more importantly, the values of leadership, collaboration, and advocacy,” Crowder said. “As one of the very few girls involved in the 4-H TechChangemakers program, I felt compelled to address the lack of participation and encouragement enabling young girls to feel inspired and empowered to participate in STEM programs.”

Crowder incorporated the concepts, skills, and values learned from her 4-H background to use as a foundation to build and sustain her community initiatives of ITgirls, a girl-empowering initiative encouraging girls in grades 6-12 to pursue non-traditional career pathways, such as those in information technology and STEM, and STEMSQUAD, an educational outreach program designed to foster early collaborations between boys and girls in grades K-8 through fun and engaging STEM experiments.

“I realized early on that there has been a lack of participation and interest among girls when it comes to STEM-learning, coupled with the reality of gender inequity and the lack of empowering programs, especially in rural areas like Southside Virginia — my community,” Crowder said. “It was this awareness that propelled me to enact changes toward providing more communal opportunities to engage both girls and boys in productive collaborations using STEM, as I believe that STEM has a profound impact in bridging the gender gap and in shaping our future.”


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