Kari Lewis, MSU Extension - Glacier County
Annually, the Glacier County 4-H Council chooses an individual or group to honor for their contributions to 4-H. This year, Don, Carolyn, and Cody Popelka were honored as the Volunteers of the Year, in recognition of their outstanding commitment to 4-H and the Glacier county archery program.
While many 4-H volunteers grow up in the program, the Popelka family has had a relatively new introduction to 4-H. It was another 4-Her, Brenda Aspevig, who invited Levi and Cody Popelka, to first join 4-H, a decision which Don and Carolyn supported. “We were new to the community, and 4-H was a great way to meet people and get us involved,” Don said. That invitation from Brenda the Popelka boys to join 4-H eventually led to Brenda’s marriage to Levi Popelka, and Don and Carolyn’s introduction to 4-H!
It was Jim Elings who first got Cody involved in the 4-H archery program, and from there, Don and Carolyn attended a 4-H training to become certified archery instructors. Surprisingly, Don and Carolyn were not even archers prior to their 4-H involvement, but through the program have developed a love of the sport. “It’s fun, and challenging, plus the weather is nicer during archery season!” Don noted. Since becoming involved in the 4-H archery program, both Don and Carolyn have purchased their own bows as they and Cody hunt for elk, deer, and turkey.
While the Popelkas admittedly have a newfound passion for archery, it was the tremendous benefit that 4-H had on their son Cody that spurred them to become volunteers. “When you can take a quiet, clingy kid and bring him out through a great project, I hate to see that die. We decided to step up and become involved,” Carolyn said of why they choose to remain involved with 4-H after Cody graduated in 2014.
The quiet, clingy kid that Carolyn refereed to is now a senior at Montana State University in the Mechanical Engineering program and Navy. Cody will enter the United States Navy’s Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidacy program upon graduation, which will allow him to work aboard a nuclear-powered submarine. Carolyn attributed Cody’s present success to his tremendous growth in the 4-H program. She noted that as a high school freshman he literally hung on her arm at his first 4-H club meeting, but through the course of the year he really came out of his shell.
“To see a kid go from not saying two words to being able get up in front of people and do public speaking and do project interviews, that’s a big change,” she said. Don echoed Carolyn’s sentiments of 4-H’s impact on Cody, saying that following Cody’s high school graduation, his summer employer told him that Cody’s interview was the best they’d had in terms of professionalism, being well spoken, and making eye contact. Those interview skilled were honed through 4-H, and are a skill that Don and Carolyn work especially hard with their archery club members on in preparation for their Marias Fair interviews.
Don sees the benefit of the archery project both for himself and for the kids. “It’s not just about archery, they are learning a skill, they are learning to follow instructions, help others, and get along with others,” Don said.
Even as adults, Don and Carolyn note that they are also learning through the program. “To get up in front of a group of kids every week, it helps with my own public speaking,” Don said, “Those young kids really keep you honest and catch it if you make a mistake. It shows they’re paying attention,” he said.
Each week, from November until March, Don and Carolyn coach the weekly archery practices. Annually, the Popelkas plan a Christmas party for their archery group and a 3-D shoot at their home where members spend the afternoon practicing their archery skills on 3-D targets. Cody assists with practices and tournaments as he’s able, noting that, “4-H has given me the opportunity to practice my leadership skills, which have helped me in college and hopefully in the future as well,” Cody said.
For Carolyn, she says coaching has taught her patience and understanding, and that coaching with her husband has worked really well. “We’ve always worked together, and we can tell each other freely what needs to be done, it’s great. He’s more into the mechanical part of archery, and I’m more into watching the kids and keeping them out of trouble,” Carolyn explained of their team effort.
The duo’s weekly commitment of leading archery practice, “Gets us out of the house and up and moving, gets us involved, and it’s fun for us,” Don said. Both agree that the highlight is seeing the kids’ excitement each week and their growth through the program.
“I’ve seen a couple kids like Cody grow through the program. Grace Rooney, she was pretty quiet to start, and is now outgoing and almost a teacher. Dayne and Hadley Barbie, it’s neat to see them stepping into a leadership role,” Carolyn said, explaining how the older members quickly take on a leadership role with the younger members.
Don noted that seeing the kids’ improvement is what he most enjoys. “We encourage them to set goals, and when they meet those, they are pretty excited,” Don said. Don noted last year Wyatt Berkram set a goal to shoot six 10 X’s, and then shot seven 10 X’s in his first practice. “We encouraged him to set a higher goal, and then strive for that. It’s really neat to see the improvement, that’s what is most important,” he noted.
Another highlight for Don and Carolyn was when Cody qualified in his second year of 4-H to compete at the National Shooting Sports tournament in Grand Island, Nebraska. Carolyn commented on the tremendous support that Cody received for his trip to Nationals. “I opened the mailbox one day, and there was checks in there from people wanting to support Cody. We had never even asked for it. Cody would sell vegetables at the Farmer’s Market and say it was funding his 4-H trip, and he would be wiped out of vegetables every time. People really wanted to support him,” Carolyn said in admiration of the support for the local 4-H program.
Being involved in the 4-H program has opened Carolyn’s eyes to all that 4-H offers. “Growing up, I thought you needed a cow or pig to be in 4-H,” Carolyn said. “Now I look back and see that I could have cooked or sewn; it’s neat to see all the programs 4-H does have. It’s a good program, I would like to see more kids be involved. Every kid I’ve seen in 4-H, they’re good kids. They go on to do good stuff, and they’re hard workers,” Carolyn said.
It is only because of volunteers like Don, Carolyn, and Cody Popelka, that 4-Hers have the opportunity to develop the skills that allow them to go on to do extraordinary work. This opportunity is noticed by 4-H families, including the Steven and Bess Hjartarson family. “Jacob and Brad are so impressed with Don and Carolyn’s knowledge and willingness to help with anything, from skills to finding the right equipment. I appreciate their dedication to our kids. Their boys have grown up and moved on (although Cody still helps a lot too!) and they still give so much to our kids and the program, we appreciate it so much.”