Van Kavelaar got ‘hooked’ on 4-H for a lifetime
WYOMING, Del. — At Delaware 4-H’s annual basket action fundraiser, Bette Jo Van Kavelaar, known to many as B.J., was presented a special volunteer award, in recognition of the more the 40 years of supporting the state’s 4-H programs.
“That surprised me,” she said at her kitchen table a few weeks after the event. “There’s so many people that do so much. I’m just one of them.”
That is true. 4-H clubs and programs are dependent on numerous volunteers to continue operating, but it in no way diminishes her impact.
“B.J. is the type of volunteer that every organization dearly loves to have with their group,” said Doug Crouse, Delaware 4-H program leader. “She always says ‘Yes’ when asked to help with anything.”
VanKavelaar started in 4-H as a club member in Connecticut, then in Illinois and then to Delaware while in high school.
She looks back on working two summers for Kent County 4-H agent Marion McDonald and as a camp counselor as very helpful in developing skills she’d use in her 30-year career as a financial analyst for Delaware’s Department of Transportation.
“That challenged me to think on my own and take responsibility,” she said. That stuck with her, she said, and she got more education and training which brought more responsibility. Van Kavelaar retired from DelDot as the assistant director of financial management and budget, managing billions of dollars in the agency’s budget and helping to establish its trust fund.
As a parent, she was a leader of the club her sons were in. She handed it off to other parents when her sons aged out, but has remained a volunteer since, helping in judging competitions, fundraising and advocacy.
“I just got hooked in with 4-H and have been with it ever since,” she said.
As a 4-Her, she gravitated mostly to cooking, clothing and leadership projects but enjoys learning so much from the variety of activate youth participate in now.
“I’m amazed at the project areas now,” she said.
After her club leadership ended, Van Kavelaar’s volunteering was often as a judge for county and state competitions.
She has served annually for the past 25 years as a judge for County events including Record Books, National 4-H Week Contests, Public Speaking, Demonstrations and many others, Crouse said.
During the Delaware State Fair, she’s frequently found in the 4-H building judging exhibits, public speaking and demonstrations.
While judging, Van Kavelaar said she delights in seeing youth present their skills, their growth over the years and always learns something from them.
She’s not bashful about taking an idea home with her either.
“I have no creative imagination but I can copy well,” she said with a laugh. “It’s just astounding what they come up with.”
Van Kavelaar has been a very active member of the County 4-H Order of Links for over 38 years serving in various officer roles and providing leadership for the program.
The Links group is helpful in raising funds for 4-H and she said the annual basket auction fundraise was born out of smaller similar auctions at Links members’ homes.
“We thought well if we got $5,000 that would be great,” she said of the first basket auction 21 years ago. “We ended up getting almost $10,000.”
To date, the event has raised more than $340,000 for the Delaware 4-H Foundation.
Along with fundraising, Van Kavelaar has advocated to county, state, and federal legislators the importance of 4-H and the need for adequate funding.
She served on the Kent County Extension Advisory Committee for 12 years as well as a director of the Delaware 4-H Foundation for 12 years.
“She continually advocates for Extension and spoke numerous times by making presentations to our County Government Officials to request funding for extension programming and activities,” Crouse said.
“It takes money to run the programs,” she said plainly. “It’s so worthwhile to get into. If they need more we do what we can to advocate for more money.”
Since her retirement, Van Kavelaar has also volunteered extensive time to multiple local community groups that include her church, Helping Hands Helping Hearts and Court Appointed Special Advocates.
Her volunteer work continues, despite a diagnosis of breast cancer last year and undergoing treatment.
The support from her family and friends, many from the 4-H community is “just fantastic” she said, fighting back tears.
It’s been a struggle getting through the treatment the past months, but like her volunteerism, she has no plans on quitting.
“It’s kind of shocking when you hear the big C-word but you do what you’ve got to do,” she said. Then she smiles. “Hopefully it won’t hold me back much.”
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