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NORMAL - Corn dogs, basketball and a chinchilla help make for an enjoyable county fair experience for one Normal youngster.

Tom Basting, 12, likes to impress the judges at the McLean County 4-H Fair with his pet chinchilla. He'll show his animal for the second time this summer as a 4-H project with Silverleaf Let's Go Ag.

"My dad and both my uncles used to be in 4-H, so I joined it. … It's been going on for a long time," Tom said.

That it has - 90 years, in fact.

Silverleaf Let's Go Ag and Silverleaf 4-H each will celebrate their 90th birthdays during the 2007-2008 school year. The two 4-H clubs draw members from Bloomington-Normal and surrounding small towns.

"To see them grow and mature as young 8-year-olds into very good, outstanding citizens is always something that gives a leader pride in the whole program," said Gordon Ropp, leader of Silverleaf Let's Go Ag for 52 years.

At times, Margery Ruch, Silverleaf 4-H leader, has wanted to throw in the towel because of the challenge to keep children interested, but she believes in the program.

"It gives the youth a sense of accomplishment…We tell them no matter what color ribbon they get at the fair, they've accomplished something," Ruch said.

McLean County has 50 4-H clubs for 8- to 18-year-olds and 11 Cloverbud groups for 5- to 7-year-olds, said Theresa Chambers, 4-H community worker in the University of Illinois Extension McLean County office. 4-H is a youth organization that focuses on leadership, citizenship and life skills.

The office does not keep historical records for the clubs, but Chambers estimates only about five clubs are more than 40 years old, making the two Silverleaf clubs' 90-year milestones an accomplishment.

The clubs' strong presence is a result of the dedication of families past and present, Chambers said.

"That's what keeps it going," Chambers said. "It's kind of a family unit. It's its own community."

The Bastings and the Ropps are examples of families with ties to the past.

Tom Basting's dad, Warren Basting, was a member of Silverleaf Let's Go Ag for 10 years, along with his two brothers. Their father was a member before them. Basting's daughter, Taryn, 14, and his two nephews also are 4-H members in the same club.

Meanwhile, Ropp's daughter, Diana Green, co-leader of Silverleaf Let's Go Ag, and his grandchildren were 4-H members. Ropp's mother, Mabel, and father, Clarence, were some of the first members of the Silverleaf Let's Go Ag Club. In a scrapbook, Ropp's mother said the group's goal was "to make farm life worthwhile."

"You knew you would do it. It was a given … because of our heritage. Grandma and grandpa had always been involved," Green said.

In the past, more members lived on farms, but 4-H is not just a farm kids group. Silverleaf Let's Go Ag has 24 members, and fewer than half have a farm background, Ropp said. Silverleaf 4-H has 20 participants, all of whom live in town, Ruch said.

"(Originally,) they either had livestock or cooking and sewing. … Now we've branched into a wide variety of projects," said Ropp, a former state representative.

Now members can choose from hundreds of categories for projects, including woodworking, geology, rocketry and electronics, Ropp said. A do-your-own-thing category adds even more options.

Participants continue to learn responsibility and good sportsmanship. Members partake in various community projects, such as visiting nursing homes, planting flowers and conducting food drives. At meetings, kids give talks or demonstrations that encourage self-confidence.

"Always leadership…" Ruch said. "It really has developed leaders."

90 years

Silverleaf Let's Go Ag and Silverleaf 4-H will celebrate their 90th birthdays during the 2007-2008 school year. Silverleaf 4-H plans to plant a large tree at 4-H Park at the Interstate Center, home of the McLean County 4-H Fair, in September. Silverleaf Let's Go Ag will host a social event for members past and present this weekend. Details are below:

What: Potluck meal, program, softball game

When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Carlock Community Center, 202 N. Lincoln St., Carlock

Who: Alumni and 4-H members

Other details: Bring pictures from your past club and 4-H experiences

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