Harper Miller and extension agent LeAnn Hill. Photo by Megan Schnabel.

WISE – Harper Miller says she’s been fortunate that in the seven years she’s been involved with 4-H, she’s never had to argue with her school about missing class to participate in conferences or volunteer activities.

School authorities in Wise County, where she’s a 16-year-old sophomore, have always been supportive of the youth program, she said.

But she’s learned over the years that not every school district puts 4-H on an equal footing with sports or school clubs, and that some fellow 4-H’ers in other parts of Virginia have had to take unexcused absences, or miss activities altogether. 

She doesn’t understand that approach: “4-H is a learning place,” she said. “You grow. It’s full of education. I have no idea why a school district wouldn’t allow a student to get excused for 4-H.” 

So she decided to change it.

She crafted a bill – a modified version of legislation she found in Tennessee – that would require school districts to treat 4-H activities like school field trips, and to allow the state’s 240,000 4-H’ers to miss classes without penalty. 

She enlisted the help of her two state legislators.

And now the bill is headed to the governor’s desk for his signature.

“She’s done a lot of this all on her own,” said LeAnn Hill, a Wise County Cooperative Extension agent who works with the county’s 4-H program and who advised Harper on her legislative efforts. “She’s a go-getter. She pretty much does anything she sets her mind to.”

The idea for the bill came to Harper and Hill during last year’s 4-H State Congress, when a presenter from Tennessee told the group about a successful effort in that state to seek equal consideration for 4-H activities.

It got them thinking.

“Quickly after that, me and LeAnn started talking, and we decided we were going to make sure we could get this into legislation this year,” Harper said. 

Her dad, Duane Miller, is executive director of the LENOWISCO Planning District Commission, so she’d grown up hearing about state and local government issues, she said. That exposure pushed her to pursue legislation, she said, but it didn’t make the prospect of taking her idea to Richmond any less daunting.

“I was very scared at first,” she said. “It was just very nerve-wracking to me.” 

But she reached out to Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, and Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, and she said they and their staffs put her at ease.

“They really just guided me with it,” she said. “They’ve been amazing, and they just really took me under their wing and taught me as I went through it.”

Hayley Allison, Kilgore’s legislative director – and a 4-H alum from Tazewell County – said she appreciates the sentiment, but she said Harper is far too modest.

“What she sent was exactly what was filed,” she said. “I really did not play a significant role in this. I just filed the legislation. It was truly all Harper. She saw the need, and she worked to help meet that need.”

Harper Miller spoke at the state 4-H Day at the Capitol, which was held remotely this year. Courtesy of Harper Miller.

Harper, who testified remotely at a House subcommittee hearing, said she got no pushback, and not even any questions, from legislators. The bill cleared both chambers unanimously.

“We’re not asking for money, we’re not asking for anything,” she said. “It’s not really a political issue. Parties aren’t really going to conflict over this. It’s just students and the youth wanting to be excused to go learn. Who would say no to that?”

In fact, Del. John Avoli, R-Staunton and chair of the subcommittee that first took up Kilgore’s bill, told his fellow legislators during a hearing that he couldn’t imagine any school principal denying a student an excused absence for 4-H.

“It’s amazing to me that we have to pass legislation here in this body dealing with this type of thing,” said Avoli, a former high school principal himself.

Pillion said he believes the bill will have a real impact. “The support that I had – not only through the General Assembly but also through students and constituents that engaged me on supporting this bill and championing it – was evidence to me that it’s certainly a concern of a lot of students throughout the commonwealth,” he said.

It’s not clear just how significant the issue of 4-H school absences is around the country, or how many states have dealt with it legislatively, although Tennessee enacted its legislation in 2021 and a similar bill is currently making its way through the Oklahoma state legislature. A spokeswoman for the National 4-H Council said Thursday that she didn’t know of other examples of 4-H’ers facing the issue.

Hill said it’s been gratifying to watch legislation birthed in Wise County make its way successfully through the Capitol.

“Typically you hear about things that happen in Richmond and they get funneled to us in Southwest Virginia,” Hill said. “So I was super excited that this is something that’s happening in the next-to-the-last county of Southwest Virginia that’s potentially going to go to Richmond and affect every kid in the state of Virginia.”

Harper’s efforts have given her fellow 4-H’ers an up-close look at how Virginia’s political process works, beyond the annual 4-H Day at the Capitol when they visit Richmond and sit in on legislative hearings.

“This is making it so real,” Hill said. “I actually have learned with the kids about how this process takes place. It’s been so applicable to these kids.”

Harper Miller, who’s now 16, first attended 4-H camp the summer between fifth and sixth grades. Of this photo, she writes: “My first year as a camper, the year I found my love for 4-H!” Courtesy of Harper Miller.

Harper said she was first exposed to 4-H in fourth grade, when Extension agents visited her class with projects and activities for the students. Her interest grew, but 4-H became her passion when she attended her first 4-H camp in Abingdon during the summer between fifth and sixth grades.

“Ever since then, I’ve loved 4-H,” she said. “I told my dad when I got back from camp that summer, ‘Oh my gosh, I love 4-H. I’m doing this for the rest of high school, for the rest of my life.’”

She thinks some people – maybe a lot of people – have the wrong ideas about 4-H.

“It’s not just about going and showing your pet sheep and getting a ribbon,” she said. “You’re learning a lot more than that, and gaining a lot.” 

There are a lot of 4-H’ers who raise livestock – and, Hill pointed out, get a real-world education in time management and organizational skills and biology in the process – but others focus on volunteerism, or environmental education, or STEM topics.

Harper Miller is a member of the 4-H State Cabinet. She and other students were inducted into the group at the most recent 4-H State Congress. Courtesy of Harper Miller.

Harper has been immersed in leadership and community outreach activities. She works on projects like Lunchbox276, which sends home bags of food with students. She’s a member of the state 4-H Cabinet, which plans the annual 4-H Congress, and she’s getting ready to be a full-fledged teen counselor at this year’s summer camp after spending time as a counselor in training. 

“When I was little, my first year at camp, I looked up to the teens,” she said. “So I’m excited to be one. Hopefully the kids will look up to me, too.”

She knows she wants to go to college, but she hasn’t settled on a career path yet. Right now, she’s thinking about becoming a pediatric nurse. But it changes every day, as she’s exposed to different jobs, she said with a laugh – she’s wanted to be a teacher, a lawyer, a dentist.

Young people get involved in the General Assembly legislative process from time to time, Allison noted. “But not every legislative office has had the pleasure of working with an intelligent teenager like Harper,” she said. “It was a pleasure to work with her. Harper has such a bright future, I know that.”

Pillion concurred. “I suspect Harper can have this seat whenever she wants it, because she is that great,” he said. “She’s just a tremendous leader with a bright, bright future.

“She’s made working on this bill a delight.”

Harper says she expects she’ll get involved in more legislative efforts in the future, now that she’s had one success. She had one piece of advice for any of her peers who might have similar ambitions:

“Don’t let the big city get to you,” she said. “The big city of Richmond is scary for a little small town girl. But don’t let it get to you, and just go for what you believe in. Don’t let anything get to you.”

Megan Schnabel is managing editor for Cardinal News. Reach her at megan@cardinalnews.org or 540-819-4969.