Today Donna Toyama is busy working as a staff attorney, focusing on civil rights and prisoner litigation cases, as well as working at her local Park View Presbyterian Church. She is a mother of two, loving wife and cat owner. But before all that, Donna was a 4-Her in French Camp, California. She started her 4-H career in the first grade where she learned how to sew, making aprons, and skirts. “It was the sixties and that was what girls traditionally did in 4-H at the beginning, learn how to sew. But we [women] were never limited to what projects or activities we could do." Donna fondly remembers her time participating in fashion shows, county fairs, and performing at the state fair.
“For me, 4-H was strictly about learning. The focus was (and is) on learning and giving, not on achieving a particular status or metal or honor. It is an organization that boys and girls can do work on the same project.”
Donna found out about speech competitions through 4-H and was encouraged to participate and go outside her comfort zone. “I remember being really nervous at my first speech competition but I had a 4-H leader help and teach me how to talk, use notecards, look at the audience, etc.” After the competition, Donna stayed to listen to other 4-Hers' speeches.
It was from another 4-Her's speech that Donna found out about the Guide Dogs of America’s Raise a Puppy Program. Donna had never heard about raising a guide dog puppy and thought that would be an interesting, fun, and different project to do. With the support of her family, encouragement and guidance from 4-H leaders, Donna decided to train a guide dog puppy.
"4-H has helped me to 'push the boundaries' and get a glimmer into a world that is bigger than myself."
That was when she received Waco, a German shepherd named after the City of Waco in Texas, from the Guide Dogs of America organization. Training Waco required a lot of work and dedication, which meant, “practically sleeping with the dog because every time it stirs you have to get up and check if they need to use the restroom so it gets use to going outside“ and the basic commands (sit , stay, heel, come, fetch). There are also meets where obstacle courses are set up and people will watch and give grades to the dog and the trainer. After a year, the puppies have to be returned to Guide Dogs of America, so before Waco had to be returned, the Toyama family decided to take him into the studio for a photo shoot!
“4-H influenced me to have a frame of mind where one could do things outside of the norm and comfort zone, so in that way it set me on a course where I didn’t have to follow the traditional, well-traveled path. And sometimes there are great rewards and growth when you try something different and I think that lead me later on, after I graduated from college, to become an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer.”
After graduating from college Donna took a great leap in leaving her home in French Camp, California and moving to Alaska as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer and worked for the Human Rights Commission. At that time, the 1970s, the transatlantic pipeline was being built and it was Donna’s job to go into the pipeline camps, investigate employment discrimination cases and interview camp managers on why they were not sending women and people of color out for work in the pipeline camps, which were very high paying jobs.
4-H has helped me to “push the boundaries” and get a glimmer into a world that is bigger than myself where I could achieve new heights and not be limited.