Marathon County 4-H Summer Fun & Learning Reimagined Under COVID-19

Written by Kaitlyn Bernarde

Marathon County 4-H programming is usually carried out through in-person, hands-on learning with trusted adult partnerships. So, when COVID-19 was officially documented in Wisconsin, it turned the 4-H program delivery model on its head.

4-H logo - Marathon County - UW Extension

As a service of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Marathon County 4-H first limited and then canceled many of its planned in-person programs, meetings, and trips beginning on March 11. In-person programs were canceled through June 2020 and are limited to small groups throughout the rest of the summer following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, Wisconsin Department of Health Services, and UW-Madison researchers on the severity of the pandemic and methods of spreading the virus. These restrictions and cancellations led to a major revamping of 2 staples of summer 4-H programs in Marathon County: Community Connections and Summer Camp.

Community Connections 4-H Summer Enrichment Program Reimagined

Community Connections is a summer enrichment program for elementary students in the Wausau School District (WSD). Normally, it runs for 6 weeks in June and July, where community partners — including UW-Extension, the Wausau and Marathon County Parks, Recreation & Forestry Department, and the Historical Society — lead programs in WSD elementary schools for 3 hours from Monday through Thursday. These programs offer youth the chance to explore new activities and ideas, enhance their strengths, and connect with organizations in our community.

Each summer, Marathon County 4-H conducts 216 hours of hands-on learning
through the Community Connections program — making it one of its largest annual outreach programs.

Due to COVID, however, the WSD moved its summer school online and decided not to offer Community Connections virtually, as students would be in front of their screens all day. Instead, for 2020, WSD families could register for a Community Connections kit filled with hands-on activities for youth and their families to do at home.

Marathon County 4-H Program Coordinator Kaitlyn Bernarde shows one of the 4-H activity kits to be included in the Community Connections boxes. (Photo courtesy of Kaitlyn Bernarde.)

Our Community Connections partners had the option to contribute activities for 1 to 5 weeks, depending on their capacity and interest. Participants and community partners could share activity directions, end products, and information about the organization through a private Facebook page.

Our Community Connections 4-H program provided kits to 50 families, including 75 children, in Marathon County.

Americorp Vista Volunteers
AmeriCorp VISTA volunteers assembling Community Connections boxes. (Photo courtesy of Kaitlyn Bernarde.)

4-H Summer Camp — Without Leaving Home

Another staple of the 4-H program dramatically altered due to COVID-19 was our Summer Camp. Each summer, a 3-day, 2-night camp is led at Camp Susan in Deerbrook, WI. This 4-H experience typically includes a variety of STEM projects, arts-and-crafts activities, water fun, physical activities, nature exploring, and campfire games led by high school camp counselors.

2020 was going to be the first year that Marathon County would partner with Wood and Clark County 4-H programs to offer a Junior Camp (Grades 1–5), as well as bringing back an Intermediate Camp (Grades 6–8), which included an outpost camp, at which youth spent a night away from the comfort (and indoor plumbing) of the cabins.

4-H_logo w counties

Rethinking programming during COVID led to 7 Wisconsin county 4-H programs — Marathon, Clark, Lincoln, Langlade, Shawano, Oneida, and Wood — teaming up to create the Camp in a Box program. This initiative aimed to encapsulate the best parts of camp: trying new things and learning about other people and traditions, but families each set up a personal camp in their own backyard or living room using our suggestions.

Families enrolled in 4-H (and even those not enrolled) could request a standard Camp in a Box kit for $10.00, which included activities a family could do together and all the required directions and supplies to complete several independent activities on a camp-based schedule. (If they had multiple children, families could request additional add-on kits for $3.00 each.)

Camp In A Box Song Book cover

In July, 4-H will be offering 3 nights of 1-hour online programming with UW–Extension staff, camp counselors, and guest speakers to learn more about lumberjacking, to connect with one another, to play games, and to sing camp songs (if interested, you can download our 2020 Summer Camp songbook here).

The initial goal for the program was to have 200 base Camp in a Box kits,
but we ended up securing 371 boxes — reaching 788 youth!

Looking Ahead…

This time during COVID has brought uncertainty, stress, and disappointment, but it has also opened our minds to a range of new programming possibilities.

Most large in-person 4-H events have been canceled through September 2020, and some even into November. Since March, several 4-H programs — including 4-H club meetings, youth demonstrations, and youth conversations on current events — have moved to digital platforms, which we recognize is limited due to broadband access and reliability issues across the county.


Looking ahead, with the cancelation of the Wisconsin Valley Fair, a digital spotlight on youth work throughout this entire 4-H year is in the works. Also, there is the potential to have more at-home 4-H activities in the fall, focusing on specific project areas such as photography, Cloverbuds (5K–Grade 2 members of 4-H), and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

Once we are back to in-person programming and COVID risks are over, these alternative program options will not disappear entirely, but can be welcome program additions to reach even more youth and families in Marathon County. Such program expansions fit well within 4-H’s motto:

“To make the best better.”

Kaitlyn_BernardeKaitlyn Bernarde

4-H Program Coordinator  |  University of Wisconsin Extension–Cooperative Extension

Kaitlyn Bernarde is the Marathon County 4-H Program Coordinator for UW-Extension, where she has worked since April 2018. She is a graduate of Marathon High School, has a bachelor’s degree in Political Science, divides her time between volunteer management and expanding access to 4-H programs. Her passion is strengthening Marathon County youth and adults via education, opportunities, and experiences. In her free time, you can find her exploring Wisconsin with her husband, consuming the news of the day, and trying a new cup of coffee with her family.  Email Kaitlyn Bernarde.

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