The Transylvania Times -

Mary Arnaudin Grew With 4-H Program -Brevard NC


Last updated 5/27/2020 at 5:25pm

Mary Arnaudin, who is retiring this week, enjoys talking with her students in the Locavores summer program during a visit to KOALA. (Courtesy photo)

The slogan of 4-H is "Learn by doing." It applies perfectly to Mary Arnaudin, who is retiring this week after serving as head of the county 4-H program for the past 24 years.

"I did not grow up in 4-H," she said. "I'm not sure why I got the job."

Arnaudin graduated from North Carolina State University (NCSU) with degrees in zoology and science education, and then received a master's in coastal ecology from UNC-Wilmington.

Just prior to leading the local 4-H program, Arnaudin had two part-time jobs: teaching science at Blue Ridge Community College and leading hikes for the U.S. Forest Service.

When she took the 4-H position, Eric Caldwell was the director of the Transylvania County Extension Office, under which 4-H falls.

"I think he wanted the 4-H to do more environmental education," said Arnaudin.

As a result, Caldwell took over the more traditional aspect of 4-H, such as teaching about livestock, while Arnaudin began to expand the program in other areas.

"It was a big switch in focus," said Arnaudin.

Even though she did not have to learn about livestock, Arnaudin received a five-hour crash course from an Extension trainer from NCSU, which oversees and guides Extension offices and programs across the state.

"That was like the worst day because I was so overwhelmed," she said.

While she recently was cleaning out of all her file folders for the past two decades, she came across the notes and information from that day.

"I didn't know what to do," she said of her job. "The stuff he was telling me I really needed to know."

In addition to that crash course, Arnaudin said she also received a lot of help from Cathy Kitchen, who writes the Balsam Grove News.

"She (Kitchen) had grown up in 4-H herself," said Arnaudin. "She was the practical mentor. Their (Balsam Grove) Club had been going for 20 years. She knew it all."

Arnaudin learned little tips from Kitchen, such as having children finish projects in order to qualify for camps or competitions.

If the children completed a project, that investment of time and effort indicated they would also be invested when they attended camps or traveled to 4-H events.

When Arnaudin took over the 4-H position, there was no van or bus to transport children to events. Her budget for programs was $300.

According to Arnaudin, 4-H does not spend a lot of money because volunteers operate the actual 4-H clubs throughout the county. Through her efforts, she has been able to expand the number of programs and volunteers, as well as increase funding.

"4-H agents do not lead all the programs," she said. "It's really working through volunteers. I usually have about 100 volunteers."

She said an advisory board was instrumental in understanding what each community thought it needed for its children.

"They would be the ears in the community," said Arnaudin. "It's not all coming from me because it's community based. It's really the long-term relationships that make a difference."

"We're becoming more flexible in how we can engage more kids," she added.

Arnaudin has formed partnerships with many organizations to benefit 4-H. Lake Toxaway Charities help fund an archery club. The Master Gardeners have taught plant and soil curriculum to students at Brevard Elementary School. In that program, students receive hands-on instruction in the gardens at Silvermont during the warmer months and in-class instruction during the winter months.

The local 4-H also has helped provide embryology and engineering programs in the schools, with students at Rosman Elementary School learning to build rockets.

"They're all pretty low cost," said Arnaudin of the programs.

Arnaudin said money from organizations such as the local Cattlemen's Association, Lake Toxaway Charities and individuals have helped funding for more clubs and programs. She also applied for numerous grants to fund programs.

One of Arnaudin's most successful ventures was applying with the school system – working specifically with teacher Jennifer Williams of Brevard High – for a grant from Burroughs Wellcome for the TIME program. That grant was instrumental in beginning a program through which students have gained national and international recognition.

"That's been a highlight," she said.

Another highlight for Arnaudin has been to see students she worked with 20 years ago coming back as adults to lead clubs in their own communities or to work in fields related to their 4-H experiences.

"That's one of the most fulfilling things to see," she said.

Michael Sweat, a ranger at DuPont State Recreational Forest, was one of several local students, along with her son, whom Arnaudin got into forestry camp years ago.

Now, Sweat works with 4-H students.

"He just loves it," she said.

One of the main things Arnaudin has learned is that teenagers are capable of being leaders and getting things done if they are given the opportunity.

"I really enjoy working with the teens. I like empowering them, letting them go with it," she said. "They appreciate that. They can really do a lot."

She noted, for example, that Christa Cali of Brevard High wrote a grant and received $500 to provide kits for homeless students.

Arnaudin said she could not have done her job without the support of her Extension office co-workers. Ann Albertson was the Extension office secretary when Arnaudin took the 4-H position.

"She was great because she knew the history and knew who all the players were," said Arnaudin.

She added that her co-workers have always pitched in whenever necessary, even if it meant staying after hours to help with family nights.

"You can't get anything done in this job by yourself," she said.

When she took the job, Arnaudin thought she would only stay about five years because "I always liked to do something different."

With 4-H, however, she was given a lot of freedom and allowed to let the program evolve to meet the needs of children and the community.

"It kept changing with the needs and opportunities and never got stale," she said. "There would be a lot of people who would enjoy this job, but they just don't know it exists."

Arnaudin said leading 4-H is different than teaching because she spent time not only with the children, but also their families.

"In 4-H you're also part of their family. You know the whole family," she said.

"Sometimes you know the grandparents too because they're very supportive."

While there are many aspects of the job she has enjoyed, she is "going to miss being with kids on that constant basis" the most.

Arnaudin said she had planned to retire at this time of year so that she could be a kid herself.

"I'm looking forward to a summer, just like being a kid," she said.

When travel restrictions are lifted due to COVID-19, she and her husband Steve would probably go to New Zealand to see their daughter.

"She's been living there eight years," she said. "We did go there once. I would love to go and spend extended time there."

After being a kid and traveling, Arnaudin might come back to help 4-H.

As a retired state employee, she cannot do any volunteer work related to her previous job for at least six months.

But once that period lapses, she might return to work on getting grants for career development, leadership and science.

"I'll see how I feel after my little break," she said.


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