Ask Rose “Lee” Stee how many children she has and her response will surprise you.
“I tell people I have 500,” jokes the retired Brookings County Extension Educator and 2016 Eminent Homemaker.
In truth, Stee has two grown children, Robyn Jensen and Ryan Stee, but after nearly 30 years working with 4-H youth, she has opened her heart and life to hundreds of 4-H members. “My 4-H youth were top priority to me as were my own children.”
Stee’s passion for 4-H is deep-rooted. Growing up in a Kingsbury County farm family, she explains that the neighbors were 4-H leaders so as soon as she was old enough, her mom encouraged her to get involved.
“I raised a flock of sheep that sent me through college, which was my favorite 4-H project. I was also involved with foods and nutrition, canning, gardening and horse projects. Horses were a big part of my childhood – I always loved horses and I still do,” Stee explains.
As a teen, Stee served as a Junior Leader. “I loved being a 4-H Junior Leader and teaching the children how to take care of their own sheep or horse projects or how to cook something nutritious,” says Stee of the role that eventually led her to pursue a degree in Home Economics Education.
“My mom said, ‘You like being a junior leader and teaching others so much, maybe you should think about that as a career,’” she said.
A 1973 graduate of Mount Marty College, Stee began her career working for the University of Minnesota Extension Service on the Mahnomen Indian Reservation. Within a few years she was working as an Extension Home Economist on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation and serving five counties in western South Dakota. She worked on the Pine Ridge Reservation in various capacities and with different organizations – all of which focused on improving the health, nutrition and overall well-being of children and their families.
“I’ve always loved working with the entire family. Even when what I did focused on youth, what I learned was when I taught something to youth, they would go home and teach their parents,” she says.
Even though she wasn’t solely working in Extension, Stee explains that she loved her work. “I was living the 4-H motto, ‘To Make the Best Better.’ That’s really what my entire career and life has been about. Everything I did was to make life better in rural America. I wanted to make lives better and to make lives better, you have to make a positive impact on families and communities.”
Stee moved closer to home in 1979 when she married Ronald. A few years later she landed her dream job - working as the Brookings County Extension Agent. “I always wanted to work in Brookings County because it was progressive. The entire community was very supportive of youth,” explains Stee, who returned to school at SDSU and received a master’s degree in Guidance and Counseling with an emphasis on Educational Psychology in 1984.
Although Stee’s personal 4-H experience was quite traditional, now that the county she worked for was more urban, she began to look for ways to introduce 4-H to youth who didn’t have farm ties or live on acreages. At that time, 50 percent of the youth in Brookings County lived in town.
In addition to the traditional 4-H livestock projects, she helped launch Radio Club, Rock Club, entomology, rocketry, Entrepreneur Club, CHARACTER COUNTS, Sports Fishing, and pet projects and shows (dog, cat and rabbit) at the local Achievement Day.
“Everything we could do, we did because there were always youth who wanted to do it. If there were youth who wanted to do something, we ran with it. We had fantastic 4-H leaders who helped us get the job done,” Stee says.
Stee also encouraged 4-H leaders with livestock to lease livestock projects to 4-H members living in town. Members could then visit the leaders’ farms to take care of the animals. “Our Brookings County 4-H Leaders were tremendous and many opened doors for youth,” she says. “The big thing about 4-H is you don’t have to be a child of affluence to be in 4-H. It’s the kind of activity and program that welcomes everyone.”
Together with fellow Extension Agent, Mel Foster, and area ag agents, Stee also started a 4-H Summer Horse Camp at Oak Lake. “For three days we would teach 50 kids about horsemanship; how to take care of horses and themselves and how to keep themselves safe around horses,” explains Stee, who has owned horses her entire life and continues to ride her horse, Tango, several times a week. “Learning how to take care of animals of all kinds teaches children responsibility. It improves their self-esteem. As they learn about caring for their animal, you see them learn a lot about taking care of themselves.”
Working with local sportsmen, Stee was instrumental in expanding the 4-H shooting sports and archery programs to more than 100 members. “The main thing that we all wanted was to make sure the kids were safe. We knew they were going to hunt – that’s just part of living in South Dakota – so we wanted them to know how to be safe.”
Partnering with the local after school programs in Brookings County, Stee began presenting 4-H programming to participating youth.
“You can get so much more done when you partner or work in teams throughout your community,” Stee explains.
This was the case with the Brookings Area Coalition on Aging. Stee was among a group of community members who saw the need to make intergenerational connections throughout the community. The Brookings Area Coalition on Aging not only helped connect volunteers with seniors in need of help, but also encouraged seniors to visit classrooms as Golden Mentors.
“Many kids don’t have access to grandma or grandpa – and seniors have so much wisdom to share,” Stee says.
Through her work with the Brookings Area Coalition on Aging, Stee worked with other community members to start the Brookings Volunteer Service Bank. Stee explains that the Brookings Volunteer Service Bank is a practical way to give and receive needed services.
“Basically, for every hour of volunteering you do to help others, you build up or ‘bank’ time for when you need help. There are many people who live in Brookings who don’t have relatives who live close by to help. So, if they volunteer, then if they need help from another volunteer, they can use the hours they have banked.”
Along with working full-time and raising her family, Stee has been actively involved in service organizations. She served as vice president and membership chair of the Big Sioux Chapter of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees and founding board member of the Brookings Volunteer Service Bank and the Brookings Youth Mentoring Program. She has been recognized for her service to youth and community with the 4-H Distinguished Service Award, presented by the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents; Meritorious Service Award from the National 4-H Organization; Meritorious Award from Epsilon Sigma Association; and the South Dakota Family and Consumer Sciences Meritorious Award.
Retired since 2009, Stee continues to volunteer her time to Brookings County 4-H and the community of Brookings.
“In Brookings, I’m still known as the ‘4-H Lady.’ I have loved watching my 4-H kids learn and grow. I love running into past 4-H members who now have children of their own in 4-H,” Stee says. “My mom used to say, ‘Leave this world better than you found it.’ Through 4-H and SDSU Extension, I think I’ve been able to do my part.”