Ask New Mexico youngsters what kids need to build happier, healthier lives for themselves and their communities and they'll rattle off an impressive list of suggestions.

That's what New Mexico State University's 4-H program asked about 100 young people during a State Conversation on Youth Development in the 21st Century in Albuquerque. In response, participants provided ideas that could serve as a blueprint for youth development programs in New Mexico.

Their top suggestions included construction of more after-school recreational and educational facilities where young people can hold social events, work on computers, or just hang out. They recommended “youth-government partnerships” to allow youngsters to share ideas with elected state officials on issues like education and job training, plus “youth advisory committees” to recruit adult and peer mentors for youth.

They proposed more outreach to draw youth and adult volunteers into 4-H, and suggested community service programs that employ youth volunteers to help the elderly or to beautify public parks and schools. They also recommended World Wide Web sites to allow young people to share ideas with peers in other towns and states, along with efforts to promote positive media coverage of young people that helps build self-esteem and community appreciation.

“These are the voices of youngsters directly addressing the issues that affect them in their communities and in their daily lives,” said Jesse Holloway, head of the state 4-H office in Las Cruces. “The next step is to get these recommendations delivered to local and state officials. We want all the counties to use the suggestions to improve 4-H youth programs around the state.”

Suggestions from New Mexico were forwarded to a national 4-H conversation on youth development in late February in Washington, D.C., part of 4-H's national centennial celebration.

The effort began last fall, when local 4-H clubs in some 3,000 counties throughout the country, including most New Mexico counties, held conversations to collect the best ideas about what 4-H can do in the next three to five years to create a better future for youth and the country.

County representatives took part in state conversations to compile 15 to 20 final recommendations. Those suggestions were discussed by about 1,600 4-H representatives at the national conversation, then compiled and will be presented to President, his cabinet and Congress in April.

Apart from its impact on 4-H programs, most New Mexico participants said brainstorming with other young people was uplifting. “This has been great,” said Amber Carman, 17, a former state 4-H diplomat from Albuquerque. “It's given us an opportunity to add our voices to the national 4-H agenda. Teens from every county in every state in America are participating in this process and I'm glad to be a part of it.”

Amy Byrd, 17, a former state 4-H ambassador from Tucumcari, said she considers it her civic responsibility. “We have to make our voice heard,” Byrd said. “It's like voting. You can't complain about things if you don't vote to make changes.”

Most delegates said they would begin implementing many of the county and state ideas.

In Bernalillo County, for example, 4-H members will launch two new projects: a community service campaign to collect money and in-kind donations for home-improvement projects for elderly and limited-resource families, and 4-H visits to newspapers, radio and television stations to generate positive coverage of youth.

Extension specialists say the conversations have provided a blueprint for 4-H throughout New Mexico.

“What we have now are the best ideas on youth development from the state's most active youth corps, with input at every level,” said Jaime Castillo, Extension staff development specialist and moderator for the state conversation.

About 47,000 young people and 4,700 volunteers in New Mexico participate in 4-H, a non-formal educational program of NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service. Extension agents in all 33 counties coordinate 4-H and youth development programs to allow kids to learn life skills while having fun and contributing to their communities.

Nationally, nearly 7 million young people are involved in 4-H programs annually.