For John and Mary McKeon involvement with 4-H has been a lifelong adventure.
Mary says she has been a 4-H member since the time she could “toddle to class.” Her mother was actively involved in Dade County 4-H, so from the time Mary was a little girl she would tag along to club meetings until she was old enough to be a “real” participant.
She belonged to a 4-H club for seven years where she earned many awards for sewing, money management and career exploration. Mary also organized and managed a group to design and sew clothing for children that wore leg braces. She served as a junior 4-H leader and a camp counselor. She represented Dade County at the Girls Short Course in Tallahassee.
She says her early days in 4-H taught her valuable life skills. “Doing demonstrations in 4-H taught me how to speak in front of a group and being a very shy child, that was a huge accomplishment,” said Mary McKeon. “Working on project books taught me organizational skills plus learning so much about sewing, which I did for my children, cooking, and managing money. I am who I am today because of 4-H.”
John’s introduction to 4-H came a little later in life while dating Mary. “I was fresh out of Bethesda Naval Hospital and the Marine Corps when I went to visit Mary,” said John. “My mother-in-law said, ‘I’m going to save you some money and have you stay at the dorms at the University of Florida with some boys that are here with 4-H – that way you won’t have to pay for a hotel room.’ I thought to myself that I’d rather roll in broken glass, but those kids were the nicest, most well behaved boys I’d ever met and I thought if this is what 4-H does for kids, then that’s how I’m going to raise mine.”
Not too much later, the newly wed John and Mary started a 4-H club in Escambia County, Florida. It was a little different than the rest. “We taught the kids in our club the three Cs - crafts, cooking and clowning,” said John.
“My mother-in-law would teach a craft and then send them to the next room where Mary would teach cooking and then they’d end with me where I taught them the essentials of clowning. I even had t-shirts made that said, ‘4-H Ain’t All Cows and Cooking,” said John with a laugh.
John McKeon, who was a middle school and high school teacher for 36 years, has also been a professional clown for the last 27 years. He started the 4-H Clown Club, which is very active in community service. The group, which targets at-risk youth, visits fairs, community events, nursing homes and hospitals providing a program, making balloons and doing face painting.
“He has taught 4-H'ers not only clowning skills but also discipline and how much fun it is to make someone smile,” said Kay Brown when talking about John McKeon. “He attends the fair everyday working in the 4-H Bam making balloons and face painting.”
The club discovered just how deep an impact they were able to make. “One of my 4-Hers, a little 8-year-old girl, was just chattering away to an older man during a nursing home visit. All of a sudden the nurse started freaking out and I got real worried because I thought one of the kids was doing something wrong. But the nurse said, ‘Look, they’re talking!’ and I said, ‘Well, isn’t that the point of us visiting?’ And then the nurse told me that the man hadn’t spoken to anyone for more than six months. Moments like that are why I’m still in 4-H,” said John.
John donates his clown earnings to Mary’s pet 4-H project, the Guide Dog Project, which is run through Salvation Guide Dogs. Each sponsorship costs $1,500. 4-H members take a well-tempered puppy and train it for 12-18 months. It’s then entered into the Harness Program to be trained as a guide dog.
Many are trained as seeing eye dogs, but others are sent to the Gifted Canine Program at Paws for Patriots where they are taught to open doors, pull wheel chairs, grab a soda from the fridge and other tasks to help disabled war veterans live easier lives. The club has raised more than fifty guide dogs successfully.
Once at a 4-H event, a woman asked one of the 4-H club members how he could bear to give up the dog to be a guide dog, after raising it from a puppy. According to John, the boy replied, “Ma’am I’m a 4-H kid. I raise hogs and they go to the slaughterhouse. Raising a dog and giving it to a blind guy isn’t all that bad.”
Mary McKeon adds, “We teach kids how to do all sorts of things, but it’s not often that we teach them how to love something and then share it with someone who needs it more.”
When asked why they’ve stayed involved with 4-H for so many years, John McKeon said, ”I just like the idea that I can make a difference in a child’s life. It is impossible to give more than you get back. With 4-H, the more you give the more you get.”