In a world increasingly affected by food insecurity, Alexa Mitchell works to provide basic needs that can transform lives.

The 17-year-old has sought out ways to help people in her local Fairfax, Virginia, community, be it through her 4-H club garden plot, the food she donated to local food pantries, or raising money to support local homeless shelters.

And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic. In the time since, the work that Mitchell does to combat food insecurity has only become more valuable and important to her community.

“It was this experience that caused me to search for more opportunities to help those in need. I’ve learned to appreciate the value of making an impact on my community,” said Mitchell, the overall 2020 Youth in Action Virginia 4-H award winner, which recognizes four confident young leaders with diverse backgrounds and unique perspectives in 4-H core pillar areas. “In a time like this when people’s normal sources of food have suddenly halted, it’s important to make sure that I’m doing what I can to help.”

4-H sparked her interest to help others. Mitchell has served as a junior project manager and web developer at MEANS Database for the past three summers. MEANS is a nonprofit food rescue platform that connects people or organizations with excess food to those in need, particularly those in underserved communities.

“4-H has also helped to develop my people skills, which has been crucial when making phone calls and sending emails to potential partners,” Mitchell said. “Through 4-H and working with MEANS, I’ve learned that a small group of dedicated people can make a big difference. I feel like I better understand the weight of my contributions to society and the power of individuals to make a change. I’m so grateful for the tools and skills that 4-H has provided me with to make a difference.”

Mitchell is not alone in her efforts. Other 4-H youth in Virginia use their voice and platform to help make their communities stronger, which is especially vital during COVID-19. The Virtual Teen Summit held late last year, a COVID-safe approach to the traditionally in-person Teen Summits, was designed to teach youth how to use their voice and give youth a platform to make their communities stronger. The “by teens, for teens” event focused on social justice and community-based issues about which teens are passionate, with a particular focus on teens’ voices being heard.

Mitchell, along with Andrea Farag, a 17-year-old from Chesterfield, Virginia, and Becca Berglie, 17, of Fairfax, Virginia, wanted to take that same energy and give other youth that same inspiration for being a force for good in their communities.

“Andrea, Alexa, and Becca rose to the top in terms of leadership,” said Bethany Eigel, a 4-H Extension agent in Chesterfield County. “This is what we always intend to happen when working with teens. We are all very passionate about team leadership and development.”

The goal for the trio was to have other teens see their efforts and use their example in the own communities.

“It's important for teens to realize that their voice is valuable, especially because in a lot of environments, youth are put down or looked at as if we don’t know what we’re talking about,” Berglie said. “We are the voices that are going to be running the future. What we have to say does matter. Empowering kids to use their voice, whether on racial justice, agriculture, LGBTQ+ rights, or whatever they're passionate about is how we can help our generation get involved in the communities to help make positive change and to create a safe space to share ideas.”

To keep the momentum going in the teens, the leadership team holds monthly workshops to further help youth understand their voices and how to create action plans for the plethora of service projects they undertake each year.

They want teens to have the tools needed even if they can’t implement their ideas just yet.

“This information applies to future generations as well, so that's part of the reason why it's important for teens to make a difference in our communities,” Mitchell said.

The 2020 Virtual Teen Summit leadership team is also focused on making a difference now.

Berglie’s mission is to use the skills with which 4-H has equipped her to educate her fellow citizens about how food comes from farm to table through volunteer work at Frying Pan Farm Park, a county park that is a working model of a 1930s-1950s era farm.

“I use skills like leadership, public speaking, and the confidence that I developed in 4-H,” said Berglie, the 2021 Youth in Action award winner for agriculture. “Currently, using these skills at the club and county level to provide agricultural education to my community and providing an agricultural education in an urban area.”

For Farag, 4-H is about agriculture and so much more. 4-H taught her how to use her voice to create lasting change in her local community after she attended the 2019 4-H Teen Summit.

She focused her efforts on domestic abuse and domestic violence toward women, championing those efforts in her community – a daunting task for a then-16-year-old.

With leaders like Mitchell, Berglie, and Farag, 4-H teens see examples of what they can do and achieve in their communities.