Donna Gillespie

Donna R. Gillespie with Angel Melendez, 2019-2020 Idaho 4-H Teen Association vice president from Richfield, Idaho, at the Hispanic Youth Summit at the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls. in October 2019.

Empowering youth was at the core of Donna R. Gillespie’s job with the University of Idaho Extension, a career that spanned 23 years.

She retired in May.

Long involved in 4-H, she spent the last six years of her career as a regional youth development educator, partnering with 4-H professionals in youth-development programming throughout central Idaho.

On top of that, she oversaw 4-H teen programs statewide, providing leadership in 4-H personal development, leadership, and citizenship and civic education.

“Anything having to do with teen programs statewide, I was involved with,” she said.

Gillespie earned a national reputation for award-winning 4-H youth leadership programs that included the 4-H Know Your Government Conference, State Teen Association Convention and 4-H Ambassadors.

Her reorganization of Idaho 4-H teen programs increased youth leadership opportunities significantly, with the number of statewide leadership positions growing from 13 to 49 since 2015.

“We changed how they were facilitated, with youth in leadership roles,” she said.

The programs’ steering committees are now primarily made up of youth.

“It was pretty much ground-breaking to have youth in the lead in those programs,” she said.

The changes won two major awards from the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents — the Beyond Youth Leadership Award in 2018 and the Excellence in Workforce Development Programming Award in 2019.

Gillespie said the things she is most proud of in her career are all tied to the concept of “Leadership Now!” — the initiative that changed the way Idaho 4-H teen programs are developed, facilitated and evaluated.

The University of Idaho completely revamped its 4-H teen programs under Gillespie’s leadership so that teens are partners in learning, said Jim Lindstrom, 4-H youth development program director for the university.

They don’t have to wait years to become a leader; they practice leadership skills the moment they enroll. It’s exciting for teens — they’re making decisions, planning and implementing, he said.

“That’s so exciting, and Donna’s been our leader in that,” he said.

She has worked with each of those teen program committees so the kids are in the front, making the decisions. That’s a major difference from adults being in charge and leading, he said.

“With Donna’s leadership, this has really moved us forward,” he said.

He describes Gillespie as a “silent pied piper” empowering youth to reach their potential.

“She empowers them to take the leadership responsibility for all of the programs she leads. That’s a really special skill,” he said.

She’s been a great role model in engaging teens and building their leadership skills, he said.

“Her passion is building those leadership skills with teens.”

He said he knew her retirement was imminent but he just kept hoping it wouldn’t happen.

“I miss her already,” he said.

Gillespie said her favorite part of the work was “watching kids develop, watching kids grow and find their voice to serve their community.”

The best part was seeing them develop their own leadership skills, she said, adding that it is possible because there are so many 4-H volunteers and a lot of people who care and donate time and money.

Now that she’s retired, she plans to do all the things she formerly didn’t have time for — seeing more of her children, gardening, traveling and taking up golf again after a 20-year absence.

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