Extension Service Hanging on in Tough Times
Sunday, September 18th, 2011
Karri Thomas, 16, is in the 4-H Club at Arabia Mountain High School.
And yes, kids ask her what that group does "all the time," she said, laughing at the question.
"I say it's not about raising chickens and horses," Karri said, "and then I give my 4-H speech about all the fun things we do."
The 4-H Club is a program of the local Cooperative Extension, another source of confusion for many.
Just shy of 100 years old nationally, the Extension is still providing some of the same services offered in the early 1900s - soil testing; information on canning, preserving and pickling your harvest; how to deal with pesky insects.
But with today's partnerships with community gardens; "green industry" certification training; online classes in everything from honeybee production to continuing education for child care providers; and 4-H programs for youth in science, engineering and technology, this, as the local Extension folks say at their Memorial Drive office, is "not your grandmama's extension service."
Over the decades, DeKalb's Extension has been operating basically under the radar, quietly morphing with changing times.
That changed last year, when the agency found itself thrust into the glare of a most unwanted spotlight: the chopping block of the most challenging budget DeKalb had seen in many years.
County CEO Burrell Ellis presented a $529 million county budget in December that called for significant cuts, including the elimination of all county funding to the local Extension.
The DeKalb office could not have survived that ax, said its director, Jessica Hill.
County funding has typically represented about half of the DeKalb Extension budget. The other portion is state and federal funding received from its parent agency, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.
The DeKalb Extension received $763,594 in state/federal funding this year. The final 2011 county budget, at $540 million, kept the DeKalb Extension service alive, restoring $689,132 to the 14-person agency. That was down from $891,746 in county funding in 2010, but typical of the deep cuts made countywide.
Lee May, the commission's Budget Committee chairman, said commissioners received lots of feedback from the community about "the great work [Extension agents] do with youth and the really innovative things they do with the funding they receive."
May said government service providers across the board need to be "more progressive" about funding sources, he said, seeking more public-private-nonprofit alliances and going for grants.
As the DeKalb Extension recovers from its scary budget wake-up call, Hill is eager to tell county residents that the agency is as relevant today as in 1914 when the National Cooperative Extension Service was founded.
The statewide program's academic home is within the University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and includes a partnership with the College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
UGA researchers provide expertise and support to Extension agents statewide, helping them inform their constituents and respond to issues in their areas.
"We provide top-of-the-line research-based information in the areas of agriculture, horticulture, 4-H and youth development," Hill said in an interview Monday.
Right now, she said, the DeKalb Extension is helping individuals and groups with maintaining natural resources; fighting childhood obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases; food safety; and leadership development through consultations with agents, off-site presentations and in-house programs.
"The bottom line," Hill said, "is improving the quality of life for all DeKalb citizens."
A timeline of extension work in Georgia begins in 1904, when the first boys' corn club was organized in the Newton County schools.
Two years later, girls' garden, tomato and canning clubs began in Hancock County and statewide corn and cotton growing contests were held.
In 1905, UGA began issuing bulletins giving production tips. And in 1908, the first "College on Wheels," an educational train with cars for livestock and the exhibition of modern farm machinery and farming practices, began traversing the state. College faculty delivered speeches to crowds of as many as 5,000 people.
Started nationally in 1921, the agency's 4-H Clubs promote healthy living and good citizenship, focusing on a child's sense of ethics and responsibility, care for others, communication skills, financial literacy, self-confidence and environmental protection.
More than 6,000 urban and suburban kids from age 9 to 19 participate in 4-H Clubs in more than 50 schools and community sites. 4-H refers to the head, heart, hands and health.
Georgia 4-H has five environmental education centers across the state. Built in 1954, the Rock Eagle 4-H Center in Eatonton is said to be the largest 4-H center in the country with overnight accommodations for 1,000 campers.
It was there that Marie Trice, who leads DeKalb Extension's 4-H division, made her first club presentation: "How to Make a Better Breakfast."
She was an eighth-grader from Thomaston, the only African-American there to compete with more than 600 other 4-H kids from around the state in 1968.
"My passion about working with kids comes from that experience," Trice said, "and my drive and determination for making this program the best in the state, if not the country."
She has found success. Ten of DeKalb's 4-H Club members placed first, second or third at the 2011 Project Achievement district competition. One of them was Trice's daughter, Ariana Cherry, 14, an Arabia Mountain High School student who won a spot in 4-H's Clovers & Company statewide performing arts group.
Joshua Grosh, 17, a Lithonia High School senior, is president of the DeKalb County Council of 4-H.
"4-H is a home away from home," Joshua said, "with people who are always there for you and... help you fit into your world and connect with thousands of other students across the nation."
Last summer, Joshua had to speak off-the-cuff before 500 people at a 4-H event at Rock Eagle. He was running for the state Board of Directors and had to immediately answer a question he pulled out of a hat. The question: If there were a fifth H, what would it be?
"I said 'Hope,' " Joshua said, "because I've seen 4-H'ers who come from abusive homes who tell me 4-H is one of the places they feel safe; 4-H'ers who come from bullying school settings who feel they actually matter for once; 4-H'ers who were broken down so far that they felt they were nothing, but when they come to 4-H they feel they can actually do something with their lives."
Serving humanity is one of the things Columbus Brown loves about being one of the Extension's trained Master Gardeners.
County residents accepted into the program get 50 hours of training in weekly classes at the Extension office. They reciprocate by sharing what they've learned in at least 50 hours of volunteer work. Last year, there were 270 volunteers.
A Master Gardener program for schools has helped produce outdoor classrooms such as the one at Stone Mountain Elementary.
"County capability in terms of responding to citizens has diminished," said Brown, a federal government retiree. "We're providing assistance in areas already strained in the budget as volunteers."
Brown is one of the volunteers at the Stone Mountain community garden, located on a former ball field behind the city post office. The group has delivered more than 500 pounds of produce since April to the Stone Mountain Methodist Church food pantry, Brown said.
"The group at the Stone Mountain garden is bonded in a very special way because much of the food we grow is for the food pantry," Brown said. "Just knowing that people are getting healthy food that is pesticide-free is wonderful."
Gary Peiffer, a county Extension agent who manages the horticulture division, said his team offers commercial landscaping training to arborists and county employees.
Hill wears a second hat as head of the Extension's Family and Consumer Services (better known in the past as home economics).
She and her staff offer programs on health and nutrition, housing education, financial literacy, food safety and preservation, small business development, and family living. They give child care provider training and have programs related to diabetes and other chronic diseases. Moderate- to low-income people are target audiences.
They teach wherever six or more people will have them and offer sessions at the Extension's training center. Last year, 71,902 county residents were served in workshops, classes and through 4-H, Hill said.
For more information about DeKalb Extension programs, visit www.caes.uga.edu/extension/dekalb or call 404-298-4080. The Extension office is at 4380 Memorial Drive in Decatur.