The 4-H program made a difference in Molly Hayes' life while growing up. She now helps it make a difference in the lives of hundreds of Bernalillo County youth and military families.
"School wasn't easy for me," Hayes said. "4-H gave me other skills where I was able to succeed so it kept my self-esteem up."
Hayes' home is considered 4-H Central for the Mountain Heights 4-H Club along with county-wide projects in rabbit and "cavy," commonly known as guinea pigs. But she really promotes 4-H values during her day job.
Working with the Kirtland Air Force Base Airman and Family Services program in Albuquerque, Flight Chief Hayes now introduces military youth to 4-H at the base youth center.
"I love everything about 4-H," she said. "It makes a difference in lives of children and youth."
The National 4-H Council has recognized Hayes' enthusiasm and dedication to youth by honoring her as the 2018 National 4-H Salute to Excellence 4-H Volunteer of the Year.
"Molly has always made sure that any kid who wants to get involved with 4-H or even just getting exposed to 4-H has an opportunity. For this reason and so many more, that is why Molly has received this national recognition," said Brittany Sonntag, Bernalillo County 4-H agent with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.
Hayes can't remember a time that 4-H wasn't in her life. Before becoming a 4-H member at age 9, she watched her older sisters participate in the program. Her father, Robert L. O'Nan was a photography leader and was recognized by National 4-H Council for being a national leader.
Growing up, she participated in a wide variety of 4-H projects, served two years on the New Mexico State 4-H Officer Team, and was a National 4-H Congress Photography winner.
Her 4-H experiences helped her to be elected as the NMSU student body president in 1987 while she earned a degree in home economics, early childhood development and social studies.
"I thought I would be a teacher, but I didn't get picked up by a school district," the 1989 NMSU graduate said. "The Military Child Care Act passed about that time and they needed to hire over 200 assistant directors and trainers to help improve their early childhood program."
She reflects back and recalls using her National 4-H record book as part of her interview process.
While being a training and curriculum specialist for the Air Force, Hayes realized 4-H would enhance the military program.
"Years before 4-H began its military program, our youth centers were struggling," she said. "I told my supervisor they needed to do 4-H. Ten years later that supervisor called me to say that the Air Force had partnered with 4-H."
Stationed at Nellis AFB in Nevada at the time, she helped start a traditional 4-H club and led photography and sewing projects for the military youth.
"Having the program at bases eases anxiety and instantly immerses the military children into friendly learning environments," she said. "Just like it did for my children when we moved. My girls would ask if they would have 4-H at our new location."
As Hayes' children continued to benefit from participating in 4-H, she started to take more active volunteer roles to lead 4-H clubs and introduce youth to positive learning experiences.
After returning nine years ago to her native New Mexico as the flight chief at Kirtland AFB, Hayes established active 4-H programs at the youth center to introduce a variety of 4-H projects, including rabbits, cavy, computer coding, model rockets, baking, leadership in government, citizenship and other topics in the installation's before- and after-school programs.
Her steadfast determination and passion for 4-H helps create unique hands-on programing for more than 100 youth on a weekly basis and culminates with dozens of projects entered and displayed at the Bernalillo County Fair.
"To have a successful program on the base, you need dedicated Cooperative Extension Service 4-H agents," Hayes said. "Having fabulous agents in Brittany Sonntag and Nicole Jaynes has made the difference in providing the program at Kirtland AFB. They tremendously support our Air Force program by bringing in people to help the kids."
She also attributes the program's success to the partnership with her programmers, Heather Hutzell and Lucy Burbach, who lead the 4-H programs, and her director, Larry Lynn Torres.
"They have made the 4-H program at Kirtland AFB possible. That joint relationship has made it possible for our military kids to experience 4-H," she said.
Hayes' dedication to 4-H is as strong as her dedication to the families of the military men and women.
"It is an honor to be able to bring the lessons and values of 4-H into our base program," she said. "It supports our military personnel who put their lives on the line for our freedom."