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NDSU Extension agent uses science, rabbits to connect kids with 4-H

FARGO -- Monique Stelzer owes her job to a rabbit. A suburban kid growing up in Sioux Falls, S.D., she couldn't keep a calf or lamb in her parents' backyard for a 4-H project. But she could raise a black Himalayan rabbit named Cinnamon. Caring fo...

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Monique Stelzer with North Dakota State University Extension and 4-H youth development shows off Jasmine, Skylar and Rhet. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

FARGO -- Monique Stelzer owes her job to a rabbit.

A suburban kid growing up in Sioux Falls, S.D., she couldn't keep a calf or lamb in her parents' backyard for a 4-H project. But she could raise a black Himalayan rabbit named Cinnamon.

Caring for the rabbit and tracking its development inspired 8-year-old Stelzer to say she wanted to be a "bunny rabbit" when she grew up.

Stelzer hasn't turned into a rabbit, but she continues to work with them through 4-H.

The 34-year-old Fargo woman is the 4-H youth development Extension agent with the North Dakota State University Extension Service. She calls herself an informal educator who works with after-school and enrichment programs in communities to expose kids to the youth developmental organization.

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As Stelzer found out at age 8 when she joined, 4-H isn't just for farm kids.

"I would call it a stigma of being just for farm kids," she said.

Part of her role with the organization's National Task Force for Diversity and Inclusion is reaching out to youths who aren't traditionally engaged in 4-H. It's different in every community, but kids living in cities or on Indian reservations and new Americans are examples of populations not typically involved with 4-H.

Stelzer is known for introducing youths to rabbits, an animal they can keep indoors and still learn record keeping, care and other animal husbandry skills. But kids in 4-H can choose projects focusing on anything from photography to food to animals.

Stelzer is now helping Chris Blegen, a 17-year-old student in Colfax, with a rabbit project focusing on nutrient absorption in feed. He's known Stelzer for about four years through 4-H.

The two often use Snapchat to communicate animal photos and questions about projects. Inspired by his 4-H experience, Blegen will study agriculture education at NDSU next year.

"Monique's always working to improve 4-H and get more kids involved. Kids and rabbits are her passion," Blegen said.

In Fargo, Stelzer's been involved with several Extension projects, such as partnering with Bhutanese youths for a robotics project. For the first time this spring, she'll collaborate with seventh-grade teachers in West Fargo to breed rabbits while they study genetics.

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Michelle Frenette, who retired from Fargo's Carl Ben Eielson Middle School last year, worked closely with Stelzer on the school's science club. The after-school program started with a handful of students, and now about 29 are enrolled.

"She lets them know that 4-H isn't just about farms. It's about becoming a better person, it's enriching," Frenette said. "She's so lively and welcoming and brings it down to their level -- kids love it."

Stelzer focuses on hands-on science that supplements what they're learning in the classroom. For instance, students create a comet nucleus with dry ice, water, dirt and ammonia to learn about comets. They make cornbread after learning about the farm-to-table movement.

"I love being able to introduce kids to new experiences and I love being that agent of change that brings discovery about," Stelzer said.

Stelzer's worked with children her entire career. She introduced inner-city youths in Chicago to camping and other nature activities when she was involved in urban natural resource education. She was a science educator in Sioux Falls, S.D., before moving to Fargo eight years ago to pursue work with 4-H and, of course, rabbits.

Besides using rabbits as a learning tool with youths, Stelzer raises and exhibits them at rabbit shows. She has about 30 in her breeding and show lines, like Rhet, a buck (rabbits are bucks and does, like deer) who's a bit of a Romeo, and Noir, a fancy doe named for the French word.

Rabbit shows operate like a typical dog or cat show and the animals are judged on a 100-point standard.

On show days, Stelzer sets up her table -- the same one she made in 4-H as a kid -- and applies coat conditioner to her bunnies. They're loaded into boxes and judges take the animals out to inspect them after posing them on the carpeted table.

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The best in breed compete for best in show, and judging can be intense. Stelzer laughs as she confirms it can be a little like "Best in Show," the 2000 movie that highlights the quirkiness of animal owners and show behavior at a dog show.

Some people bring 30 rabbits; Stelzer sticks with two to four and doesn't take it seriously, saying it's a social event for her.

Her love of rabbits is well-known to her students and colleagues, and so is her passion for educating youths.

In the future, Stelzer aims to work for the state center for 4-H and train other agents. But she won't stop working with children.

"As an educator, you need to work with kids," she said. "If you're not working with kids on a frequent basis, I feel you've lost that connection."

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