For many 4-H’ers, the most valuable lessons don’t come from competition and project work, but rather the volunteers and leaders who spend their time and resources impacting the development of youth. For Michelle Cunningham, this holds especially true.
Growing up in Meigs County, Cunningham had the opportunity to spend a large part of her youth working closely with Clare Nell Breeden, a Meigs County extension agent.
“She was, and still is, a striking example of selfless dedication to her friends, family, church and community,” Cunningham says. “She has an amazing, unwavering faith in the Lord, and her spirit is truly inspiring. Let me not forget her work ethic … she never stops!”
It was this type of role model who encouraged Cunningham to be an active participant in her local club, competing in poster contests, public speaking and fashion shows, as well as a judging team for plant, seed and tree identification.
In 2018, Cunningham began the Clare Nell Breeden Scholarship, which awarded one student $1,000 in the name of her longtime mentor. But Cunningham felt like she could do more.
“I reached out to other former 4-H members, and we got to work. The endowment is to honor Ms. Clare Nell Breeden, who worked diligently as a 4-H extension agent,” Cunningham says. “The endowment not only honors Ms. Breeden, but is a way to continually give back to the youth of Meigs County. Ms. Breeden has been a pivotal role model and supporter of the youth of Meigs County for as long as she has been there. So the endowment is really unique in its dual purpose.”
For Cunningham, volunteering and supporting Tennessee 4-H programs comes naturally.
“It is important for me to give back to the 4-H program because, as a youth, I got so much from it,” says Cunningham. “It’s amazing how much you learn and grow from the activities and programs available through 4-H.”
On Apr. 25, volunteers behind the Clare Nell Breeden Scholarship joined forces to host a dinner and silent auction at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Decatur. Nearly $6,000 was raised to go towards the endowment to help with youth and college expenses.
Q&A with Michelle Cunningham
Where did you grow up? What 4-H Club where you part of and what activities were you involved in?
I grew up in Decatur, TN and was a part of the Meigs County 4-H Program. In elementary school, I was involved in 4-H public speaking, poster contests, spring fashion shows and baking contests. In high school, I expanded my activities to judging teams with plant, seed and tree identification. I also participated in the fashion shows, as well as volunteered at the Meigs Co Fair as a 4-H student. I helped raise money for our 4-H club by helping Ms. Breeden sell funnel cakes at the Watts Bar Arts and Craft Festival in the mid-90s.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from your time in 4-H?
It is very difficult to select the ‘biggest’ lesson I learned. I truly feel like I learned many crucial lessons and life skills from this club. As a member, I was always encouraged to do my best and be my best, but being my personal best didn’t always mean I came out on top – and that was OK. We can’t all win all the time, but we can always learn and have a positive attitude. If we are doing our best and being good citizens, then we are doing our part to help make our communities a better place. Learning the value of community, friendship and teamwork were key as well. 4-H really fosters a strong sense of community and good citizenship, which is so important. I will say, in all of my 4-H activities, civility was paramount. I believe the art of being civil is a fine feature to obtain, as well as being aware of its importance in this world.
When and why did you establish the scholarship? Whom does the scholarship honor?
I started the scholarship in 2018 and a $1000 scholarship was awarded. I wanted to take the scholarship to the next level and establish an endowment that would go on, so I reached out to other former 4-H members that I knew and we got to work. The endowment is to honor Ms. Clare Nell Breeden, who worked diligently as a 4-H extension agent in Meigs County. She was, and still is, a striking example of selfless dedication to her friends, family, church and community. She has an amazing, unwavering faith in the Lord, and her spirit is truly inspiring. Let me not forget her work ethic … she never stops!
Even after her retirement, she has maintained a very active community presence and is involved in many club activities. She is truly a remarkable lady who has given so much to Meigs County and multiple organizations. I wanted her legacy to always have a place in this community, and I thought the endowment would be a great way to honor her timelessly. Additionally, the endowment not only honors Ms Breeden, but is a way to continually give back to the youth of Meigs County. Ms. Breeden has been a pivotal role model and supporter of the youth of Meigs County for as long as she has been there. So the endowment is really unique in its dual purpose.
Can you tell us a little more about your community efforts to raise funding for the scholarship?
[Our most recent] efforts were focused on a dinner we hosted to honor Ms. Breeden and raise money for the endowment. We had a catered dinner and silent auction in Decatur at the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Apr. 25. We sold tickets in advance for $20 per plate to raise $3,000 at our dinner for the endowment to add to the already pledged amount of $7,500. We had information for guests to learn how to contribute more to the endowment, aside from the purchase of their dinner ticket.
The TN 4-H Foundation makes it very easy to donate online, including auto-draft. I would love to encourage people that have a special bond with Ms. Breeden and a love for the youth of Meigs County to donate to this endowment. Most of us would not miss $20 per month from an auto-draft payment…in one year, that’s $240. That would go a long way to help the youth with college expenses, as well as honor Ms. Breeden through this endowment.
Why is it so important to you that you continue to give back to the 4-H program?
It is important for me to give back to the 4-H program because, as a youth, I got so much from it! It is amazing how much you learn and grow from the activities and programs available through 4-H.
If you could give one piece of advice to a 4-H student, what would it be?
Do as much as you possibly can! When you think you need a break, don’t take it. Get involved and do every single possible thing that you can. The opportunities to learn and have fun and make friends are abundant through all that 4-H has to offer students. Put yourself out there and push yourself to do anything and everything you want to do. You won’t regret what you did in 4-H, but you may look back and wish you had done more.
How would you encourage others to volunteer for 4-H?
I would encourage anyone who wants to volunteer to reach out to his or her local extension leaders. Extension leaders are rare gems that truly have the best interests of youth at heart. They can let you know about upcoming 4-H events and any needs in your community. Even if you are strapped for time, you may be able to help send a deserving youth to 4-H camp or sponsor the youth of 4-H in other ways. There are many ways to volunteer your time or give back to the community through 4-H … it doesn’t have to be ‘big’. It takes all of us to do small parts that really make a big difference.