Casey Heitzman expects compliance from her animals. That they outweigh her by hundreds of pounds makes no difference. Just a slip of a girl, 11 years old, a sixth grader with flashing blue eyes that light up even the dark recesses of a cattle stall, she handles a Hereford steer with confidence, skill and pride.

The pride is well founded. Her steer had just earned grand champion status at the Fort Worth Stock Show. The animal was groomed to a sheen, and at any hint of mischief a gentle prod from Casey settled him down.

Casey is representative of thousands of youngsters who spend long hours training and grooming animals (cattle, sheep, goats, and swine) for months before they show them at agricultural fairs and stock shows across the country.

And like many of those youngsters, Casey participates through her local 4-H Club, the country's largest youth organization, founded 100 years ago to do what it continues to accomplish today: provide an avenue for youngsters to develop life skills, confidence and practical abilities.

More than 7 million youngsters, from 8 to 19 years old, participate annually in 4-H programs. Even though it started by the Cooperative Extension Service, which continues to oversee the program, as an organization for rural youth, 4-H currently serves urban youngsters as well.

Rewards can be significant.

Casey's grand champion steer brought $12,000 at auction. She got $15,000 for a grand champion heifer at the Dallas Stock Show last year. She plans to use some of the money to build a show barn on her family's Pilot Point farm, in Denton County, Texas.

But she gets a lot more than cash from the experience. Her father, Rusty Heitzman, says the real payoff comes from confidence and the ability to take on adult responsibility.

“It takes a lot of work, but she enjoys it. She likes to be involved in a lot of different activities. She'll stick with it, and so will her brother, who is just eight and just getting started.”

Casey has shown cattle for three years and enjoys the effort necessary to get animals ready to show.

“I like to practice and get good, so we can win,” she says. “I practice about an hour a day, every day for at least a month before a show. I get a little nervous before I show an animal, but I start getting ready two hours ahead of time. That's when the practice pays off.”

Caden Whitley, a 9-year-old 4-H member from Acuff, Texas, near Lubbock, shows swine and goats. He brought a pig to the Fort Worth Show but prefers goats.

“I have one goat I named Loco because every time I take him out he goes crazy,” Caden says.

“He's learning a lot of responsibility,” says his father, Chad. “The first thing he does after he gets in from school is work with his animals.”

“I practice at least 15 minutes every day,” Caden says.

“It gets a little hard at times, especially when the weather is hot,” Chad says, “but when he gets a first place in a show and gets some money, he'll find it's worth the trouble.”

Caden also participates in the 4-H rifle competition, shooting a .22 caliber and learning about competition and gun safety.

Cody Gladney of Amarillo credits some of the leadership skills he's learned to participation in 4-H, a big part of his life since he was nine years old. Gladney will graduate from Tascosa High School this spring and will be on his way to Texas A&M and probably a career in the livestock industry, an interest he developed in 4-H.

“I'd like to be a veterinarian or a livestock specialist with the Extension Service,” he says. “My 4-H animal projects helped me figure out what I wanted to do. I've shown steers, lambs and swine. I've had the reserve grand champion pig in the county several times.”

He has also participated on judging teams and worked on method demonstrations for agronomy, safety and cooking. “I learned a lot about leadership and people skills in 4-H,” says Gladney, who also participates in FFA, baseball and is a member of the National Honor Society.

Gladney's parents, Kenneth and Brenda, former 4-Hers, encouraged him to participate.

“Showing swine was the first thing I tried,” he says. “I needed a lot of help when I first started. When you first get into show animals you don't know what you're doing. It's a unique experience.”

The Gladneys live on a small farm near Amarillo and raise show animals.

In addition to competitive projects, Gladney also volunteers for community service, including collecting Christmas toys for less fortunate youngsters. “Community involvement is important,” he says. “It's a good feeling to be able to give something back.”

Livestock projects may be the most popular and most visible activities for 4-H members, but the program offers considerably more.

Adam Beck, 18, a 4-H member in Copper Canyon, Texas, was recently named recipient of the 2002 Prudential Spirit of Community Award as the state's top youth volunteer. He is the son of Kent and Elaine Beck.

A member of the Bluebonnet 4-H Club in Denton County, Beck was instrumental in the design and construction of a bird observation building at the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area, located on 2,000 acres of Denton County property near the Lewisville Dam.

The observation site includes viewing portals, photos and background information on birds common to the area, hands-on displays, flip-top question-and-answer displays and benches for visitors to sit in comfort and watch birds.

Beck hopes to attend Texas A&M University and major in agricultural engineering. The engineering aspects of the project intrigued him.

“I've always enjoyed building stuff, (like the) goat barn at our house,” he says. “With the bird blind, I was able to build, design and organize.”

Beck has served as 4-H ambassador, president of the Denton County 4-H Council, secretary and currently president of the Bluebonnet 4-H Club and member of the Texas 4-H Natural Resource and Conservation Project team. He designed the bird-viewing house as a combination 4-H community service and Natural Resource and Conservation project and as an Eagle Scout project.

Although Beck designed the building and the displays and supervised the effort, much of the actual construction was done by Denton County 4-Hers, especially members of the Bluebonnet and the Flower Mound 4-H Clubs, and members of the Boy Scouts of America Troop 123.

Beck says most of the $1,000 prize that comes with the award will go into his college fund.

Other youngsters learn to cook, sew, grow plants and participate in community service projects that are limited only by the imagination of youth.

Britta Thomas, for instance, a 4-H member from Minnesota, spearheads a fund-raising project that buys shoes for disadvantaged youth in her community. During a press conference in Washington, with Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman and farm broadcaster Orion Samuelson, Britta explained that she got the idea because friends could not participate in gym class since they didn't have proper shoes.

“We developed a Happy Feet Website,” she says, “and raised more than $3000 to buy shoes.”

Marcus Cook, a Pensacola, Florida 4-Her, also participated in the Washington press conference and says his cooking projects have taught him more than just how to put ingredients together to make a meal.

“I make presentations at county and regional events and for national competition,” he says. “I've learned a lot about public speaking and the projects have given me the opportunity to travel.”

He says his favorite recipe is “tasty turkey chili.” Marcus is beginning to think about career choices and believes the training he's gotten through 4-H, especially the public speaking, will help him, regardless of what he decides to do.

Lucas Shivers, a student at Kansas State University, also discussed his 4-H experience at the media event. He says growing up in an agricultural community made 4-H a natural fit. “I was in 4-H for 10 years,” he says. “I raised market lambs but the things I value the most are the life skills I learned.”

All three agree that leadership and public speaking provided them their best opportunities in 4-H.