Seeds of support: Transforming 4-H camps into havens for social, emotional and behavioral health

Ryley Butler Modaff interacts with 4-H students and staff to enhance social, emotional and behavioral support (Photo by Rachel Guidugli)

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This story was originally published by UKNow.

Lexington, Ky.— The University of Kentucky Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment (Martin-Gatton CAFE) and the College of Social Work (CoSW) are spearheading a novel initiative aimed at enhancing social, emotional and behavioral support for children and teenagers. 

The project is part of UK Engage, led by Nancy Cox, vice president for land-grant engagement and Martin-Gatton CAFE dean, and Executive-in-Residence Mary Shelman. UK Engage identifies strategies and priorities for enhancing land-grant engagement across the campus and in Kentucky communities. 

Concerning data about young people’s mental health in the United States highlights the initiative’s urgency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that from 2011-2021, 42% of adolescents experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness while 29% experienced poor mental health in the past 30 days. 

In response, Martin-Gatton CAFE’s Cooperative Extension Service (CES) partnered with the CoSW introducing the 4-H Camp Behavioral Health Fellow Program in 2022. This innovative program focuses on recruiting and training qualified behavioral health professionals and strengthening the ability to effectively address youth health needs. Designed to integrate behavioral health support into the 4-H summer camp experience, the program addresses a crucial gap in campers’ social, emotional and behavioral health. 

Ryley Butler Modaff, the first fellow, says the program is helping youth and families in need. 

“I’ve worked with and helped young people who had mental health issues so they could continue with their camping experience,” said Butler Modaff, CoSW graduate student and inaugural 4-H Behavioral Health Fellow. “I think the program can really help youth positively view behavioral health.” 

Leveraging her academic foundation in social work, Butler Modaff has been instrumental in informing and executing strategies to support young people in addressing health challenges, ensuring they had a fulfilling camping experience. 

The two colleges are the perfect duo for assisting youth with behavior and mental health. 

“We understand that all young people come into 4-H membership with different lived experiences,” said Rachel Guidugli, CES assistant extension director for 4-H youth development.

“Through this partnership with the College of Social Work, we are building capacity to support child development in a neutral space like 4-H Summer Camp. This way, we create a ripple effect into our communities as we prepare a workforce that’s ready to lead.”  

During her camp tenure, Butler Modaff engaged in various activities with the campers. Her responsibilities included handling severe homesickness, managing aggression and resolving conflicts among campers. This approach aided the 4-Hers directly and provided camp staff with insights into effectively managing behavioral health issues. 

“Integrating behavioral health into 4-H summer camps is vital in addressing the mental, social and behavioral healthcare needs of young people and their families across Kentucky,” said Meagan Lederman, CoSW assistant director of strategic operations in experiential learning partnerships. “Ryley’s contributions have been instrumental in shaping this initiative, and we are excited to see its growth and impact.” 

Butler Modaff said the fellowship provided her with invaluable practical experience, enhancing her educational journey. The fellowship program was not only important to the 4-Hers but to herself as well. So much so, Butler Modaff is staying on with the program to help it grow. 

With Butler Modaff’s help, the fellowship program is looking to recruit more CoSW students, offering hands-on learning and professional development opportunities. It aims to place a fellow at each of UK’s four 4-H camping facilities during the summer, ensuring consistent, comprehensive health support. 4-H currently serves over 13,000 individuals from all 120 counties in Kentucky. 

“We want all 4-H camp participants to feel like they belong. We have created a supportive environment where caring adults are engaged in the participants’ individualized pursuits of success,” said Joey Barnard, CES principal 4-H camping specialist. “We care about young people’s physical, emotional and mental health. We aim to create a camp environment that supports youth in that moment and beyond.” 

For over 85 years, the College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky has been a leader in education. Our mission is clear: Through rigorous research, excellence in instruction, and steadfast service, the CoSW works to improve the human condition. Always, in all ways.

As the state’s flagship university, our mission is actualized through our deeds. Our faculty are renowned academicians dedicated to fostering the development of high-quality practitioners and researchers. As a college, we promote community and individual well-being through translational research and scholarship, exemplary teaching, and vital community engagement. We are committed to the people and social institutions throughout Kentucky, the nation, and the world.