OLYMPIA, Wash. – Imagine touching snow for the first time. Or holding a baby alligator. These and other adventures are part of a Washington State University Extension 4-H program to encourage teen independence and insight into different cultures and values.
The Thurston County Interstate Exchange recently hosted 16 4-H’ers from Louisiana.
“When we were at Mount Rainier, we gave each of the teens a large, black plastic bag to use for sledding,” said exchange coordinator Doreen Tudor. “The Louisiana extension agent cut two leg holes and put the draw string over their heads to keep them dry.  We called them Cajun snow bibs!”
Industry, ag and history
The energetic, education-packed week-long exchanges teach teens about the culture, industry, agriculture and history of the area they visit. Last year, Thurston County youth visited teens in Louisiana, where many had “first” experiences of their own.
“We went to a refuge where I got to hold a baby alligator, which was tiny but feisty,” said Kami Owens, 17, of Lacey. 
In Washington, the Louisiana group explored Pike Place Market, the Museum of Flight, the Museum of Glass and other locations. They toured apple orchards, went white water rafting and walked in a rain forest.
Leadership, relationship
“This program has helped me become more of a leader,” said Luke Christensen, a sophomore from Olympia, who has been part of the past two exchanges and hosted a teen this summer. “I wanted to travel new places, try new food and experience different cultures.”
“Just sitting at home and watching a movie with my host family was so enjoyable because we got to know one another and had laughs every minute of it,” said Owens.
“The family was so genuine. They let us come into their lives and experience their day-to-day activities.”
Teens growing together
Since the program began in 2006, students have traveled to Montana and Pennsylvania.  Tudor always is searching for other states interested in providing unique opportunities for teens for the two-year exchange cycle.
“I have seen teens grow as individuals and watched them learn to be patient and accept different cultures,” said Tudor who began working with 4-H in 1982. “It’s a place where youth from different projects come together as one group.”