It’s not just the kids who derive a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when they put their work on display at the the California Mid-Winter Fair & Fiesta. For Imperial County’s 4-H Program Coordinator Shanna Abatti, it is the culmination of a year’s work.

The act helping shepherd hundreds of local 4-Hers through the process of preparing an animal, a quilt, a food item, a photo display or any of a number of other projects for public display and judges’ appraisal signifies a ‘job well done’ for Abatti, who enters her fifth year as program coordinator.

“It’s my favorite event of the whole year,” Abatti said. “Not only do you get to see youth showcase what they’ve done over the past year, but it’s their only chance to showcase the hard work they’ve done.”

Adding to the excitement of the Mid-Winter Fair for Abatti is the fact judges from all over the world are flown here to judge and evaluate the livestock projects, and about 2,500 still exhibits are displayed in the Inspiration Gallery building.

“To see that all being showcased is amazing, I absolutely love it,” she said. “I think that the fair is exciting. I think that it connects the community. You can go to the fair and you’re going to stop at least 15 times between the front entrance and, you know, not even the Midway, because you see people that you know and you haven’t seen in a long time. So I think that the spirit of the community really is exhibited at the fairgrounds.”

A Valley native and a nearly life-long resident, Abatti had a notion of becoming the county’s 4-H coordinator even back when she was a youngster sporting the familiar green-and-white 4-H uniform herself and showcasing fair projects of her own.

Born (and raised) into it

Born in El Centro, Abatti joined 4-H as a member of the M&M 4-H club in Brawley as soon as she was eligible.

The age limit at the time was 9 years old. Since then, the organization has lowered its minimum age to 5.

“I had sheep projects, I did arts and crafts projects, sewing and leadership and community service projects, so I was definitely grown in the 4-H program,” Abatti, now 38, said.

Joining 4-H was quite an easy decision for her, as her sisters were members and her father was a club leader at M&M.

“We were raised in it,” Abatti said of her and her sisters. “We were raised in the model of giving back to the community, and that’s what a lot of 4-H is about.”

Abatti eventually switched to Pine Valley 4-H club in Holtville as the result of the choice her father made to help a friend grow the club, which, at the time, was much smaller than M&M.

Though small at the time, the Pine Valley Club, which is still chartered today, had a rich history. Founded in 1914, it is the very first 4-H club in the Valley.

“It was a real little club that only had hogs at the time, so he came there, and we started growing that 4-H club and bringing other members and other youths that hadn’t been involved,” Abatti said.

Abatti continued in 4-H until she hit 18 years old, which is the maximum age limit in the club.

During her time as a 4-Her, Abatti was also a member of Future Farmers of America El Centro Chapter.

“By my senior year (high school), I became the southern region vice president, and I would travel to Pomona every Sunday for regional meetings,” Abatti said. “I actually did so much in FFA. I won public speaking competitions and won regional competitions. By the time that I graduated out of high school, I’d obtained my American farmer degree through the national organization.”

Abatti said she felt adding FFA to her already busy schedule with 4-H was a wise choice due to broader exposure she would gain to the agriculture industry.

“I knew how important it is to the Imperial County and how important it is to our global economy,” she said. “That’s what I was very interested in, too. I knew that even if I didn’t want to go into agriculture, just having that base and background was just extremely important.”

Balancing the responsibilities that wearing a navy blue FFA jacket and green-and-white 4-H uniform brought was hard work, but was well worth the effort as far as Abatti is concerned.

“It was very formative with those two loves and passions and being able to do those together,” she said. “Some people think you can’t do FFA and 4-H together, but they offer so many varieties of opportunities that they blend well together.”

Same passion, different place

After graduating from Southwest High School, Abatti went on to attend Fresno State University, but in no sense did she leave the Valley or 4-H behind.

“I would come back and I would help run a sheep program,” Abatti said. “So I would help kids practice their showmanship and practice their feet and everything that they needed to do for livestock. I did that religiously because my sisters were still showing — so a big benefit there.”

While attending FSU, the Abatti also worked as a staff member for a training management company.

She also completed internships involving pest control, field management and agriculture, all of which provided experience that would perfectly fit her future endeavors.

After graduating with her degree in agricultural communications, emphasis in animal science, Abatti accepted a supervisory position with the company she had been working for.

In her new position, which she held from the ages of 24 to 30, the Valley native would travel all over the United States for six weeks at a time to train staff and managers at franchise restaurants.

“I would fly home to the San Diego area and basically wash my clothes and fly out to the next place,” she said. “So I was living a very gypsy lifestyle. It seemed very fun (at the time).”

Eventually, the job’s fast-paced lifestyle ran its course for Abatti, and she began searching for quickest route back to her home community.

Along with wanting to be nearer to her family, Abatti felt the Valley was the ideal place to raise a family of her own, which she is doing now with her husband, Mark Fitzerka. Together, they have 3-year-old son, Porter.

She eventually found a job locally with Orkin, a national company that provides residential and commercial pest control services.

As the sole employee responsible for the Imperial County territory, she performed pest inspections and sold coverage deals to businesses in the county.

“The territory down here had a 40 to 44 percent increase in sales in the time frame that I was working there,” Abatti recalled. “I had grown it so much they needed to bring in extra help. It came down to three guys and me and then another person doing the work in Imperial County.”

Opportunity costs

Becoming a high school agriculture teacher or the county’s 4-H program coordinator were the two dream jobs Abatti had growing up.

Those who held the 4-H position prior to Abatti, such as her mentor Mary Harmon, usually held it until retirement.

Harmon was county’s program coordinator while Abatti was growing up.

“I had always wanted to do this job, and I said, ‘Well, I’m never going to get to do that job’ because when [Harmon] retired, a gentlemen had started (in her place), and I was like, ‘Well, he’s going to be there for the next 40 years, so that’s out of the way,’” Abatti said.

To her surprise, Harmon’s replacement left the position after short tenure.

Upon hearing that news, Abatti, then 33 years old and still employed by Orkin, had a choice to make.

“I was like, ‘Get out of my way,’” Abatti said. “When I left the company (Orkin), they said, ‘We’ll double your salary and give you a personal vehicle to drive.’ It was outlandish the amount of money they were willing to spend on me to keep me in the position. I actually took a huge pay cut to come here, but I wanted to come back because I knew that I wanted to give back to the community that had given me so much.”

During her interview for her current position, Abatti was told her personality was possibly “just a little too big” for the local 4-H office.

“‘We don’t know if you’ll fit in,’ they said,” Abatti said. “So I go, ‘Well how was the last person?’ ‘Oh, they were really quiet.’ ‘And, how well did they do?’”

Abatti believed her outgoing, positive attitude was exactly what the local 4-H program needed.

“Because, obviously, no change equals no change,” she said. “And if you want to be the spirit of the community — or be the spirit of the volunteers or if you want to lead a meeting — they’re not going to stand behind someone who’s humdrum and with no personality. They need someone that is spirited and wants to do things.”

When Abatti accepted her current position five years ago, the local 4-H program had about 500 kids participating.

Since then, as a result of community outreach, after-school programs and other strategies, the organization now serves approximately 10,000 kids.

During the same time frame, the number of adult volunteers has also expanded from a little more than 170 to 400.

As program coordinator, Abatti oversees all the volunteers to ensure as many pockets of opportunities are being created for club members.

“I’m constantly working and answering questions and figuring out situational problems, applying policy, helping them to be better leaders or ensuring that our policies are met through the state office and that we’re sticking to the structure that we have set forth as a positive youth development program,” Abatti said.

Among the accolades she’s earned in her position, Abatti was mostly recently awarded the Star Award, which is an academic excellence award from the University of California, Davis.

Apart from her coordinator position, the Valley native sits on a variety of state and national efficiency committees, such as the California 4-H Association, of which she is vice president.

Locally, Abatti sits on the El Centro Rotary Board as the Youth and Vocational chairperson.

“That provides me that opportunity to have a little bit of a gypsy life, but I still have a home and a family,” Abatti said. “I don’t know if there’s ever a weekend where it’s just ‘sit at home.’ I don’t ever sit at home because I’m constantly creating things for the youth. If there’s an open weekend, that means there’s something to do and there’s someone who can be given an opportunity.”

Abatti said she believes having a 4-H program locally is extremely important, as it brings the community together and develops youth to be healthy, active and civically minded.

“When youth come together, they develop, and they see all the opportunities that are actually in Imperial County,” she said. “So when they leave, they don’t have the mindset of, ‘I’m not going back there; there’s nothing to do.’ They create a mindset where, ‘Wow, Imperial County did so much for me. I’m going to come back, and I’m gonna be a part of that community, and that’s where I want to raise my family.’”

A true family affair

Abatti estimated she has family members involved in about half of the 15 active 4-H clubs across the Valley.

When deciding whether to enroll her son in 4-H, she reflected on what the program did for her growing up.

“I was the quiet, shy, bookworm in back of the room who did not want to talk,” Abatti said. But she was able to grow significantly from the baby steps she took along the way, “from being asked to give a report on what you’re doing in your projects to finally, by the time I graduated, being able to lead a meeting, lead a conference and lead a group of people.”

Although he’s still a couple of years away from officially becoming a club member, Porter typically accompanies his mother when she attends Meadows 4-H club meetings as one of the leaders.

As part of each meeting, the young Meadows members stand in a circle and do a public speaking exercise where they take turns introducing themselves.

“We have these 5- and 6-year-olds who speak, and then you also have these 8-year-olds who are too shy to say their names,” Abatti said. “So we get to Porter, and Porter goes, ‘My name Porter, I 3 years old.’ And they’re all, ‘You have him trained.’ And I’m all, ‘Right. 4-H trained.’”

Staff Writer Vincent Osuna can be reached at vosuna@ivpressonline.com or 760-337-3442.

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