I am not a speaker. Ask me to get up in front of a group of people and do much more than introduce myself, and my mouth goes dry, my palms get sweaty and my mind goes blank.

Public speaking is the number one fear reported by people in the U.S. It's above bridges, snakes and spiders, possibly even a greater fear than encountering a snake and a spider while on a bridge. 

So I was incredibly impressed by the crowd of young people that took part in the Cumberland County 4-H public speaking contest Saturday morning. I helped judge the fourth grade speakers, with 23 brave young kids climbing on stage and presenting their speech in front of a group of strangers. 

4-H is a national youth development program where the members pledge their heads to clearer thinking, their hearts to greater loyalty, their hands to greater service and their health to better living, for their clubs, their communities, their country and their world. It develops leadership and citizenship skills, helps build confidence and helps young folks practice skills they will need to survive and thrive in the "real world," like public speaking.

Some may have an idea of 4-H as being about agriculture and home economics — cows and cooking, they used to say. Truth is, 4-H is about a lot more than cows and cooking. Through leadership education and leadership opportunities, members can develop skills in conducting an orderly meeting, team building, building a consensus and making tough decisions. Citizenship education teaches young people how their government is organized and operated, the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and the importance of giving back to the community through service.

That club your child is involved with at school offers the chance to develop all those things and the opportunity to take part in some really unique learning programs. There are 26 different program areas. 4-H'ers are encouraged to choose projects that interest them (there's a project for just about every interest) and to focus their learning in that program area. Activities and projects help support that knowledge with hands-on activities and the members demonstrate their knowledge through judging teams, demonstrations and oral presentations. The competition process also gives the young members a chance to go through a formal interview process — making that first job interview far less nerve racking. 

The opportunities available in 4-H reach from that classroom-level club all the way to national events that allow kids to meet with their peers from all across the country and take part in some very unique learning opportunities.

The first step is getting involved in the local club and taking part in these competitions.

The kids at Saturday's event had already braved giving their speech in front of their class. Now, at the county level, they were faced with three judges most of them didn't know.

They had worked hard, you could tell. Topics ranged from thanking veterans for their service to things that make their community unique and special, to how 4-H will help them help their community. They had researched their topics and were ready to wow the audience, which I'm very happy to report, was filled with parents and grandparents there showing support for their 4-H'er.

Saturday brought back a lot of warm, fuzzy memories for me. I remember being in my first 4-H public speaking contest. I also took part in the demonstration competition. Those were my favorite because it took care of the "what do I do with my hands?" question. As a food and nutrition project member, I focused on cooking topics and healthy snacks and would demonstrate how to make some fruity, tasty treat that was then shared with the judge. That was my secret weapon. All kidding aside, the 4-H competitions gave me a chance to explore my project area in a variety of ways, from the project work books, individual research, demonstrations, speeches, food and nutrition-related public service and judging teams. All of those activities would be recorded and, when I got older, that record book was used to compete at district, state and national levels.

As Saturday's competition came to a close, first- and second-place awards were named, but every single child that participated was a winner that morning. They accomplished a feat that has many adults sweating bullets. They had worked hard. And regardless of who took home the blue ribbon, each one took home the skills they learned preparing the speech and the confidence to get up there and do it again.