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Aubrey Plaza’s journey from sheepshearing in 4-H to Hollywood stardom

Chef Anne Burrell, left, and chef Lazarus Lynch, right, present the Distinguished Alumni Medallion to actress Aubrey Plaza during the National 4-H Council Legacy Awards on Tuesday in Washington. (Kevin Wolf/AP Images for National 4-H Council)

Aubrey Plaza was a shy child growing up in downtown Wilmington, Del., long before she became a Hollywood actress with a starring role on the hit television comedy “Parks and Recreation.”

But that changed when turned 8 and joined her local 4-H chapter. She took part in public speaking competitions, standing up in front of a crowd of her peers and delivering a speech about the Philadelphia Phillies winning the World Series. She also participated in a club fashion show, sewing her own outfit and strutting a catwalk to display her handiwork.

“I think there’s something about 4-H and the different programs they do and the responsibilities they give to younger people that kind of force them to gain confidence at a really young age,” Plaza said. “Being on a television show and being on a set and understanding how to be a leader in any kind of environment is really useful and I learned that through 4-H.”

On Tuesday, the National 4-H Council presented its Distinguished Alumni Medallion to Plaza as well as NBA forward Kent Bazemore, who was unable to attend due to a recent knee injury.

Held at the ritzy Four Seasons hotel in Washington’s chic shopping destination Georgetown, the 4-H Legacy Awards represented an opportunity for the youth development organization founded in 1902 to celebrate its ongoing modernization, an effort started last year to rebrand itself and expand its membership into the country’s city and suburban communities. The glamorous “green carpet” dinner also provided 4-H with the chance to promote its continued relevance and cool connections to Hollywood, the NBA and even beyond this world: One 4-H alumna, Peggy Whitson, is floating somewhere 250 miles above earth as a NASA scientist and astronaut aboard the International Space Station.

“We look for alumni that are giving back to the world, who are making the world better,” said National 4-H Council President Jennifer Sirangelo.

As part of the 4-H campaign to attract a new generation of kids, the traditionally rural and agriculturally centered clubs are now encouraging projects involving science, engineering and math — the STEM fields — including activities such as designing rockets and constructing drones.

For 4-H, a campaign to reach beyond corn fields and into cities

To highlight its focus on STEM, the National 4-H Council previously honored alumnus Andrew Bosworth, vice president at Facebook, who grew up on a Santa Clara Valley vineyard replete with trellis rows of Viognier and chardonnay grapes and a pig he named Humphrey after the children’s book. Bosworth, who goes by “Boz,” said that learning how to raise the pig, and selling the animal later at auction for meat, taught him to “be fearless to do something new.”

He also took part in group projects and learned that whether the outcome is a success or failure is beside the point. Bosworth said that the true benefit of 4-H is the opportunity to learn soft skills like leadership, teamwork and self-confidence.

“It’s what you don’t see written on the page and that’s what’s real about them,” Bosworth said. “Today I’m privileged to be in the position I’m in in every way but a lot of the skills I have in terms of teamwork and leadership — those came from a strong base of 4-H.”

For Plaza, the 4-H club also helped to expand her worldview by introducing her to children who grew up on farms and a lifestyle far removed from her own in Wilmington, where the only domesticated animal she kept was a cat.

“But she was mean and I didn’t shear her at all,” Plaza said.

During a recent appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” Plaza was able to recite from memory the 4-H pledge for host Colbert. The experience of 4-H, Plaza told The Washington Post, was a formative part of her childhood and helped make her into the person she is now, an actress who no longer shies away from the spotlight. Plus, she said, there’s still the possibility that her time with a set of clippers during 4-H could come in handy for a future acting role.

“Only time will tell,” Plaza said. “I have a feeling I’ll be playing a sheepshearer pretty soon.”