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August 23, 2019

7/3/2019 7:30:00 AM
UW Extension works to justify its existence
Staff touts an array of diverse programs

Richard Moore
Investigative Reporter

Over the course of the past 20 years, more than a few critics have questioned the UW Extension and whether the program has outlived its usefulness in the modern age - those questions persist even today - but the Extension itself eagerly touts it programs and relevance, and they did so again at the most recent meeting of the Oneida County Board of Supervisors.

Steve Nelson, the area's UW Extension director, told the county board the UW Extension is as relevant as ever: "Our staff is out there every day, changing lives through education and information," he told county supervisors.

In 2018, Nelson said, the Extension had 101 educational programs throughout Oneida County alone.

"We worked with 20 partnering agencies that support extension programs," he said. "We had 78 volunteers - master gardener volunteers, 4-H volunteers."

Calculating their pay - if they were paid - at $25 an hour, Nelson said volunteer time amounted to a contribution of about $120,000 per year.

"At the front desk, we had 422 community members come into the office, requesting things like soil samples, water samples, pesticide education manuals, and plant and insect diagnostics, those types of things," he said.

In total, Nelson said, the Extension engaged with 7,622 community members throughout the year with leadership facilitation or direct education. In addition, he said, the FoodWise program served 1,174 individuals in classrooms and senior meal sites, teaching educational programs.

Besides that local work, Nelson said, the Extension oftentimes works with other individual organizations - such as a school district or health department - and he said that on a number of programs staff works with peers from around the state on statewide issues, such as an initiative to help reduce cancer.

The Extension's public face

At the county board, various staff members described their roles and programs.

For example, Merry Lehner provides office support (along with Bonnie Tillman) and oversees the Extension's master gardener program.

"First and foremost, we are the face of Extension," Lehner said. "When someone calls, when someone walks into the office, we are the people they will speak with first to find out whatever it is they want to know in the community."

So good quality customer service is one of the really important things she does, Lehner said.

"We want to help people and find the answers to their questions and we rely on the university to provide them with research-based answers," she said. "Some of the things we do in particular, our front desk takes in soil samples - that can be gardens and it also can be wildlife - and we also take water tests in, where people want to know what's in their well water."

This time of year, Lehner said, the office support staff is very busy with horticultural questions.

"What is this plant? What is this insect? How can I control it? Things like that," she said.

Lehner said she and Tillman also assist UW Extension educators.

"There are many things they need help with - in 4-H activities and teen court, data reporting - we do whatever we can to make their jobs easier," she said. "My specific duties are related to overseeing expense and revenues for both Extension and the county fair."

Lehner said she also compiles all the fair contracts and moves them to completion and to the legal department to make sure everything is in place. She also facilitated the master gardener program in 2018, with 20 people going through the class and 18 becoming certified master gardeners.

"We do a lot of things in the community, but the one I wanted to touch on is that - each county has a local master gardener group and ours is Master Gardeners of the North, and we have a community garden where the produce there is donated to the Rhinelander area food pantry," she said.

Community education

Community education is also an important UW Extension activity, and Myles Alexander is the community development educator.

Alexander says one of his jobs is to help communities build their capacity and make informed decisions to improve the economy, social institutions, relationships, and the cultural and natural environment of the community.

"To that end, I help plan, organize, and facilitate a lot of meetings," Alexander said. "As a facilitator, my job is to focus on the process so that people can be focused on the content. Good facilitation makes it possible for participants to trust that process and apply their expertise and achieve their meeting outcomes."

It's not obvious, Alexander said, but facilitation usually requires two, three, four, and sometimes more hours to prepare for every hour of a facilitated meeting.

"In 2018 I worked with the Campanile Center for the Arts in Minocqua on a five-hour strategic planning retreat with the board," he said. "I worked with the Warehouse for the Arts in Eagle River for a situation analysis meeting attended by the board, followed by a meeting of the subcommittee working on the action plan."

Alexander said he also worked with the county's forestry, land, and outdoor recreation department to plan meetings of ATV clubs to consider and form a countywide ATV association. He also worked with the Three Lakes Community Foundation on active collaborative planning, and he also helped coordinate a mining initiative about possible mining in the town of Lynne.

"As part of the information about the mining initiative, I planned and ran four community forums with 62 unduplicated participants in the towns of Pelican, Nokomis, Sugar Camp, and Minocqua," he said. "I recruited 13 people to be small-group facilitators at those forums. And I conducted three representative sample focus groups with 26 total participants in the towns of Newbold, Three Lakes, and Lynne to learn what people knew about mining and the Lynne deposit and what they wanted to learn and how they got their information."

Health and well-being

Sara Richie is the UW Extension's health and well-being coordinator and she says this past year she expanded her role to three counties.

"An example of one of my programs that aligns with the community health improvement plan is Strong Bodies, which started in 2015," she said. "That program has grown drastically over the past four-and-a-half years, so much so that my partnerships, which include the Oneida County senior center, the Minocqua Public Library, Ascension St. Mary's and Rhine Haus, have dedicated staff to be trained and dedicated their time to facilitating the program to ensure the sustainability of the program."

Over the years, Richie said, her role transformed from facilitating Strong Bodies to more of an administrative role, possible because she now has that support from community partners.

"This includes collecting and reporting program evaluation data as well as technical support and administrative support and helping them coordinate their programs," she said. "This has allowed me to expand my efforts to improve physical, mental, and emotional health within Oneida County, such as facilitating the Taking Care Of You program, Cancer Clear and Simple, and it has allowed me to participate in other community efforts."

Richie says they also did a gap analysis and asset mapping with the trauma-informed care team with the Department of Social Services in Oneida County.

This year, Richie says she will be expanding into the financial wellness and capability program area, starting out with a program this summer in protecting against fraud at the Minocqua Public Library

Karly Harrison is the Extension's FoodWise coordinator for Florence, Forest, Oneida, and Vilas counties. She says there are two part-time nutrition educators in Oneida County.

"We are an extension program, but we do have a different funding source," Harrison said. "FoodWise is a federally funded program through the supplemental nutrition program, known as SNAP or Food Share or food stamps."

Those funds cover the costs of salaries and benefits, as well as the cost of programming, Harrison said.

"We use evidence-based programming to empower families with limited resources to choose a healthful diet and to become more food secure," she said. "We also teach parents how to plan, prepare, and buy foods for their families, and we provide direct education to children to get them to try new fruits and vegetables and to educate them on why they are important. We provide direct nutrition education to qualifying school districts and agencies."

Harrison said FoodWise had a total of 45 different program activities in 2018, 1,174 learners, and a total of almost 3,000 contacts.

Andrea Rippley is the 4-H coordinator for Oneida and Price counties.

"My job is to advise the 4-H programs in both counties," she said. "Essentially I am the link between the volunteers and the state 4-H office. I help give them stuff that they need to do, but I also take back to the state what we need, and about how to better support our counties."

Rippley said the program focuses on helping youth gain leadership skills and connecting them with their community through service learning projects.

"4-H offers county, state, and national leadership opportunities, along with the ability to gain skills in different project groups," she said.

Among other things, Rippley says she helped coordinate a Crescent after-school program where a garden program was started to utilize the garden they have in the school facility.

Rippley says she also started the North Central Quad County 4-H Camp, teaming up with Lincoln and Langlade counties.

"We are hosting a very large 4-H camp for our county and Price County also," she said. "It's to help them gain independence in a safe environment, where they may not have had that opportunity before. I also hosted the Oneida County 4-H awards banquet where we recognized volunteers specifically for their service to our program."

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