With more than 7 million members, 4H is the largest youth development organization in the nation, but it may also be one of the most misunderstood.

“4H has the perception of being rural, but half of the 60,000 4H members in Illinois are from Cook, DuPage and Lake Counties,” said Oak Lawn resident Bill Beaulieu. “You don’t have to own a cow to be in 4H.”

That fact will be demonstrated clearly, Beaulieu said, at the annual Cook County 4H Fair on Saturday, June 28. The event, held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, includes a deejay, police dogs, face painting, a rocket launch, a cake auction and a watermelon-eating contest, but absolutely no livestock.

“People think 4H is all cows, pigs and chickens,” said Beaulieu’s wife, Kris. “It’s not.”

Instead, Kris said, 4H is a student-driven approach to learning that involves hands-on activities in the areas of science, citizenship and healthy living.

“We ask kids, ‘What do you want to study?’” Kris said. “The big thing is the county fair at the end of the year; the kids choose a project and then work toward completing it in time to exhibit at the fair.”

A former 4H’er herself, Kris started a 4H club in Oak Lawn when her three children were young, she said. With the couple’s youngest child now 19 and aging out of the program, the Beaulieus will continue to stay involved as volunteers to help raise local awareness of 4H and membership in the organization.

“It’s really good for children,” Kris said. “We have seen the benefits firsthand.”

For instance, Kris said, the Beaulieus’ oldest daughter hated writing assignments and public speaking when she was in school. Through her involvement in 4H, which included researching and writing about an area of interest and presenting the information to a panel of judges, their daughter became self-assured and is now a newspaper editor with the Northwest Herald, the couple said.

According to information provided on the 4H Web site, a decade-long study showed that youths involved in 4H are four times more likely to make contributions to their communities; two times more likely to be active civically; and two times more likely to participate in science, engineering and computer technology programs during time out of school.

Beverly resident Abe Lentner said the leadership aspect of 4H was another factor that prompted him to begin a club at St. Barnabas Elementary School last year.

“They learn how to elect their leaders, set rules, make decisions and run a democratic meeting,” Lentner said.

According to Lentner, the St. Barnabas group chose to focus on a veterinary science theme for its inaugural year. During hour-long meetings once a week after school, children learned about animal habitats, first aid, completed art projects and participated in activities such as dissecting an egg. The students also participated in a number of service projects, including picking up every piece of trash on the school grounds in the spring after the snow had melted.

With 27 students in the 4H program for kids 8 and older and 23 students in the Cloverbuds program for kids 5 to 7, the St. Barnabas club was so popular that Lentner had to turn kids away, he said.

“I was shocked at the response,” he said. “We would like to expand the program, but we need more volunteers.”

While younger kids are often drawn to the fun activities of 4H, the program is also well suited for older kids, said Morgan Park resident Jane Hasty, who runs an equestrian-themed club for high school students at Mt. Greenwood Park.

Hasty, the mother of Myles, an incoming sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Emma, an incoming junior at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, said 4H has “opened so many doors” for her children and others.

“It’s great for teaching teamwork and for getting kids involved in things besides traditional activities,” Hasty said. “Emma is 16, and I have given her the opportunity to get out; but she still wants to do it. I have never seen a kid get tired of it.”

And, although livestock and other large animals are not allowed at the county fair on June 28, Emma is still able to utilize her knowledge of horses with a poster explaining how she is teaching another club member to ride.

Centrally located near major expressways at 7000 S. Harlem Ave., the Cook County 4H Fair at Toyota Park is a fun summer event for the whole family, the Beaulieus said.

“We want people to come out and see what it’s all about,” Bill said. “You can learn about so many so many things, including cows and chickens, but we want people to know that there’s so much more to it than that.”

The Cook County 4H Fair is open to the public and admission is free.

For more information, visit the Web site at cookcounty4hfair.com.