Sitka Conservation Society
Sep 08 2014

Teaching the Alaska way of Life: 4-H in Sitka

Mary Wood helps 4-H members get settled into their kayak before going on the water or the first time.

As the kids helped load the kayaks and safety equipment into the car, they complained the day’s activities had not been long enough.  Their grumbles continued in the van all the way back to town as they begged Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H leader, Mary Wood, for more time on the water the next day.  They only had one day left in their kayaking course, the last 4-H class of the summer, and they were not ready for it to end.

“They are developing a love and a passion for this place and that will have an impact on them,” Wood says about the Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H program.  From kayaking to gardening to fishing to cooking, her goal is to help the kids appreciate the beauty of their own backyard and grow up knowing they want to protect it.

“They will continue to be stewards of this place and be positive and productive members of their communities,” Wood says.  “Even if they leave, they will continue to advocate for the ideals they are learning in 4-H.”

The Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H program was started in Sitka three years ago with a push from Andrew Thoms, executive director of the Sitka Conservation Society.  Thoms knows that he came into conservation work because of his own experiences with 4-H growing up.

“I look back and it’s really amazing how much it shaped my life,” Thoms says.  Growing up in upstate New York, Thoms did 4-H projects centered around nature – enjoying bird watching, building bird houses, working on a Christmas tree farm, and learning about conservation.  “Through all of that, I got really into natural resources and natural resources management.”

Thoms came to Sitka 10 years ago and has been dedicated to building more community-driven programs here.  The 4-H program is just one part of that vision.

“We are helping to start 4-H, but for it to continue, it has to have people that are passionate and build the program themselves,” Thoms says.

Part of creating a sustainable community is teaching children to use and respect their environment.  Subsistence skills like harvesting berries, fishing, and hunting are all a part of life in Sitka, a community of about 9,000 in the heart of the Tongass National Forest.  Thoms wants kids to grow up learning how to best use their environment, respect it and protect it.  That’s the Alaska way of life.

But, 4-H can prepare kids for careers and opportunities outside of conservation also.  Alison Mazzon volunteered with the Alaksa Way-of-Life 4-H program this summer while she visited Sitka on a grant from Patagonia, the company she now works for.  While in Sitka, Mazzon helped chaperone the kayaking classes and taught classes on outdoor gear maintenance.

Mazzon grew up in Ohio and learned to sew at her local 4-H program.  From her first project of a pair of shorts to designing and making her own prom dresses, she gained more than just the ability to make to her own clothes and several state-level awards from her 12 years in 4-H.  Mazzon says she is grateful to 4-H for the friends she made and the leadership skills she gained.

And, like Thoms, Mazzon took her 4-H skills to her career.  After studying fashion design in college and working for a few years on the runways in New York City, Mazzon is currently a technical design manager for Patagonia and is part of the team that make high-performance outdoor clothing and gear.

“I don’t know what I would have done with my life otherwise,” she says.

Just a few short weeks after their kayaking adventures came to an end, the 4-H crew took to the beach and learned fishing skills as their first class of the new school year.

In addition to these classes, the kids will also do community service projects, an important aspect of building a sustainable community, Wood says. For example, the kids make jams and jellies for the senior center.  She says it teaches the kids a valuable skill and gives them a chance to connect with older generations.

One of Wood’s favorite memories of her time leading 4-H is from last year on Earth Day.  She had brought a group of students out to a local hiking trail to do some trash clean up.  She expected the kids to complain – spending a day picking up garbage not the ideal way to spend time for 9-year-olds.  But, the complaints she got were not what she expected.  They were upset that at how much trash they had collected.  How could so much litter be found in their home?

Going on her second year in Sitka, Wood has big plans for the 4-H program.  She is excited to start building a wider group of volunteers and seeing more kids join the program.  She also wants to develop more classes for high school students, as the majority if the activities over the last three years have been for ages 5 – 10.

Whether the kids are learning to make jams with the berries they picked for elders in the community or learning important outdoor skills for kayaking and hiking, the Alaska Way-of-Life 4-H program is about creating a strong community that exemplifies social, economic, and environmental sustainability.  Those Alaskan ideals, and the ideals of 4-H, are seen as intertwined for SCS and they last across generations.

“There is a big need for interdependence here,” Thoms says.  “In Alaska we are part of a community, and you cannot do it alone.”

To learn more about 4-H in Sitka and upcoming classes and events, email Mary Wood at

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