South Dakota 4-H: Developing tomorrow’s leaders

Farm Forum

Matthew Olson came home from the hospital wearing a 4-H onesie. So, when the SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Program Advisor for Pennington County says he’s been involved in 4-H since he was born, he’s not exaggerating.

“From the time I was out of diapers I was going to 4-H camp with my dad who is a 4-H agent in Mohave County, Arizona,” Olson, 27 says.

He explains that by tagging along to 4-H activities, he and his brother got extra time with their dad. By the time Olson was old enough to become an official member, he jumped in with both feet.

“My 4-H projects were diverse. I participated in dog, rabbit, entomology, rocketry, photography and shooting sports,” he explains.

By the time he was in high school, Olson was active in the Arizona 4-H Youth Staff – a statewide teen-led team which planned, organized and led the 4-H state teen leadership camp. “I was always busy and definitely gained a lot of responsibility. It was clear from the beginning that my projects were my projects. I was responsible for taking care of my animals and if I didn’t, I’d be the kid showing the ratty-looking rabbit,” Olson explains.

Today, Olson is one of 39 SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Program Advisors passionate about the organization which provides youth with hands-on opportunities to explore, experience, lead, create and give back to their community. Olson and his colleagues work to engage the more than 45,000 South Dakota youth and volunteers who participate in South Dakota 4-H programming throughout the state.

“Our overall goal in 4-H is to produce successful adults,” explains Donna Bittiker, SDSU Extension 4-H Field Operations Associate. “The SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Program Advisors have a passion for helping youth succeed. They are professionals who understand how youth learn, so they are able to develop educational programming youth enjoy in a variety of areas offered to 4-H participants.”

“That’s what I love about 4-H,” says Katherine Linnemanstons, the new SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Program Advisor for Lincoln County. “I’m passionate about finding what makes youth excited about learning and 4-H offers such a wide range of opportunities for youth. I love that it’s a youth-led organization. If a member is excited about something, they can run with it.”

Unlike Olson, Linnemanstons didn’t grow up in 4-H. The Science-Business and Spanish graduate of Notre Dame discovered the more than a century-old organization after college while working on the staff of extension camps in Alabama and Wisconsin. “I taught students about the environment, ecology, herpetology – basically the world around them – I decided I really liked this path,” Linnemanstons says.

These experiences encouraged her to return to college. This time she enrolled at the University of Minnesota where she received a master’s in Natural Resource Science and Environmental Management.

Every SDSU Extension 4-H youth program advisor’s background and story is unique – which Bittiker says works to enhance the overall mission of the organization. “The diversity found throughout the network helps us keep programming fresh, relevant and allows us to improve upon what has proven to be successful. Each team member brings new and different ideas as nearly half of our team brings youth development experiences from outside South Dakota.” she says.

The South Dakota Association of Extension 4-H Professionals (SDAE4-HP), along with other organizations, helps connect SDSU Extension 4-H youth program advisors throughout the state and provides them with a forum where they can share their ideas.

“Although we see each other at events throughout the year, like the South Dakota State Fair, this organization gives us an opportunity where we can focus on sharing what is working or ask for advice to overcome challenges we may be facing,” explains Sara Koepke, president elect of the SDAEP and SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Program Advisor for Grant County.

Koepke goes on to explain that in order to provide 4-H members and volunteers with the best experience possible, she and her colleagues continually work to keep their own leadership skills honed. “This association is one of many ways we do this. I returned from a national conference with a lot of tools to share, as well as some great tips on how to better achieve a work/life balance,” says Koepke, who is a busy working mom. Her son, Liam is 2.

Koepke says that she has a great role model in her mom, Marla Thissen. “My mom was the 4-H program coordinator in my hometown. I saw how she engaged youth and the impact she had. That stuck with me. When it came time to decide what I wanted to do, I realized that 4-H and youth is where my passion lies. This is a career I love and one I want to stick with until retirement.”

To learn more about how you can become involved in 4-H as a member of volunteer, visit or visit with your local SDSU Extension 4-H youth program advisor. A complete listing can be found at