For Leslie Allen, the award ceremony at Florida 4-H Congress in summer 2007 was an emotional one. Allen, who has been involved with 4-H for more than 30 years, was attending the event to support a friend from Duval County who was being inducted into the Florida 4-H Hall of Fame, as well as a Duval County 4-Her who was receiving several scholarships.
During the ceremonies, Allen was surprised when it came time for the “Chris Allen” plaque to be handed down to the incoming State 4-H Secretary. The tradition, which began in 1987, was started following the tragic death of Allen’s 16-year-old son Chris, who was killed in a car accident while traveling home from a state 4-H executive board meeting.
Chris’s best friend took his office on the State 4-H Council, and instituted a tradition for the state 4-H officers to honor Chris. They began handing down a special plaque to the incoming State 4-H Council secretary each year. Allen had no idea this had developed into such a tradition and found herself very emotional as the memory of her son and his service was honored.
Allen began her 4-H career as a club participant when she was 11-years-old. However, after two years she had to drop out to pursue other goals, which eventually led to her graduating Magna cum Laude from Cornell University, and receiving a master’s degree from Columbia University’s School of Social Work.
In the late 1970s, Allen became involved with 4-H again when her children began to participate in the program.
“It was very interesting to see how 4-H has changed over the years,” said Allen. “In our area when I was growing up we were very rural and so we had a lot of projects geared to that. Now our area is very urban and 4-H has changed with the times. We have very few ‘ag’ projects, and the focus is more on leadership and citizenship. There are so many opportunities for learning and growth.”
In addition to serving as a 4-H leader, both Allen and her late husband Joe served as advisors for the State 4-H Council for several years. They also established a fund in the Florida 4-H Foundation recognizing selected State 4-H Legislature participants for outstanding achievement. After her husband’s death, Allen has continued to volunteer time to 4-H youth, especially State 4-H Legislature events.
“I love 4-H Legislature,” says Allen. “It always excites me to see how well these kids research and analyze and present these issues. It teaches such great skills-- they will be better leaders and better citizens which will carry forward into their communities.”
Allen remembers one former Florida 4-H State President who has continued to use the leadership abilities he worked on in 4-H.
“Last week I was listening to National Public Radio in my car and they were discussing Adam Putnam as this ‘up and coming’ republican leader and I remember thinking ‘I know him. I knew him when he was a 4-Her!’ This program gives young people so many opportunities to develop skills. They learn public speaking, how to interact with adults, and develop skills to present their ideas.”
Allen readily admits that it is not just the youth who benefit from 4-H.
“4-H has given my family a lot,” said Allen. “It’s been a wonderful experience for me to see young people grow and do marvelous things. It’s given me the chance to see kids learn in unexpected ways about themselves and about the world.”
4-H has also helped Allen maintain balance in her life and a healthy perspective on the world.
“In my career I work with families and children with severe mental and emotional problems,” said Allen. “When you work with people with significant problems it’s really easy to get cynical and lose perspective on what the world is really about, so 4-H is my way to keep an idea of what ‘normal’ is - or can be.”
Through her work with Duval County’s Exchange Club, where she is still club leader, Allen says she has explored places she wouldn’t have gone otherwise.
“I’ve been able to travel all over to different places through my work with the exchange club. Places where I have no family or any contacts so I’m sure I wouldn’t have gone otherwise.”
In addition to her current work as a 4-H leader, Allen also serves on the
Board of Directors for the Florida 4-H Foundation, and serves on the state 4-H program advisory council.
For their outstanding contributions to Florida 4-H, Joe and Leslie Allen were inducted into the Florida 4-H Hall of Fame in 2002.