Fairbanks 4-H volunteer wins national award

By Christopher Eshleman

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Published: Thursday, Nov. 18 2010 6:40 p.m. MST

FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Lightning can strike twice. It's made back-to-back appearances in Fairbanks, where another volunteer has won a national 4-H volunteer award.

Nancy Graff, who helps lead a slate of 4-H programs in North Pole, last month won one of the organization's two annual volunteer awards. One goes to a relatively less-experienced volunteer and the other lifetime award goes to a veteran. Graff won the first of those two, as did Fairbanks volunteer Priscilla Rice in 2009.

Graff leads the Ptarmigan 4-H Club and helps guide after-school activities at North Pole Middle School and at Badger and North Pole elementary schools. Graff said 4-H in North Pole has broadened its scope in recent years, and does as much community service and outreach as it can handle. Volunteers can always be found at the fair. It also brings a petting zoo to Fairbanks Pioneers' Home, most recently on Halloween.

"She's a very good leader. She definitely helps you understand a lot of things," said 10-year-old Mikayla Cleland, one of three students who helped Graff with the after-school program at North Pole Elementary School.

The group made snowmen from pretzels, frosting and candy. A few weeks ago, the same students learned about carbon dioxide emissions and their impact on the environment, part of the national 4-H program's Youth Science Day. Beyond after-school activities, the Ptarmigan Club is raising money to place defibrillators in schools. In February, students from the 4-H Youth In Governance Program, including four from the Fairbanks area, visited Juneau to watch the Legislature in action. Graff, Rice and four others went as chaperones.

The greater Fairbanks community's 4-H clubs work closely with the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Marla Lowder, a youth development agent for 4-H, helped nominate Graff, who Lowder said last month "is always willing to help out, whether it's teaching kids in Tok about rabbits or working with a new club."

"Most people only have one (after-school program) so she's going way out and above," Lowder said.

Graff isn't from Alaska. Her blonde hair and sharp blue eyes offer evidence of Los Angeles origins. She moved north in 1986 and got involved with 4-H when her daughter, Hannah, grew old enough for school. She said the programs here have gradually become more involved with volunteer, community-based work and focus on teaching leadership skills. She said newcomers to 4-H might be surprised at its range of activities — it's not just about animals, cooking and sewing.

"They're doing all kinds of things in North Pole," Graff said.

The national 4-H organization says it sees more than 6 million participants per year. It works with the country's system of land-grant universities, their Cooperative Extension System and the Department of Agriculture.

Graff and Rice each won the national award after first being named the top volunteer, in 2009 and 2010, in 4-H's western region, which includes Alaska and a dozen other states. The national organization calls its volunteer base its "heart and soul," stating on its website, "In an age when time is at a premium, 4-H Salute to Excellence Awards are an opportunity to acknowledge our volunteers' unwavering dedication to the 4-H youth development movement."

Graff said she sees the award, which she received on the East Coast early last month, as recognition of the strength of Fairbanks-area 4-H programs in general.

"It's the parents, it's the leaders," she said. "I feel blessed to be able to be receive it but, honestly, it's everybody's."

Graff said the 4-H club is helping with the next chili cookoff, scheduled for Dec. 10 at North Pole High School.

Information from: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com

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