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Douglas County

Reflecting on a Year that Called Us to Greater Service

K-State Research and Extension – Douglas County is an organization that says ‘Yes!’ That call has come more often in 2020 than perhaps any year prior. I’m proud of our collective efforts to meet our mission, but I am most proud of the character that is presented by those who represent us – our staff, our board, our volunteers and stakeholders. I see this organization as an idea generator for Douglas County, but one that doesn’t merely set innovative goals – one that relentlessly pursues them, with others. We are quick to recognize that our capacity is not sufficient to move the needle alone. Our belief is that through partnerships – relationships forged in trust and respect – we can, as a community, create a better tomorrow. Through this sort of outreach, we set an example of how our work can be done – an example to our colleagues in 104 other counties in Kansas, across the Midwest and indeed, the nation, but more importantly, to those who work alongside us in these Douglas County, KS communities. We and they become empowered – our collective appetite to address wicked issues is tapped, nurtured and honed. We learn together what works and what doesn’t. We all begin to look for the sort of efforts to address systemic problems that capitalize on networks, the unique contributions of citizens and political will to create a visionary roadmap for our communities. Where we don’t find those efforts, our experiences have prepared us to create the space for those conversations in community.

I want to acknowledge that while there is much to be proud of, this year has also presented numerous challenges. You are likely aware of those because you, too, have had to adapt to the consequences of a global pandemic. As many of you know, our staff were able to continue their charge of delivering education and convening critical community conversation quite seamlessly – and in expert fashion! However, alongside these wins came the losses. We were unable to deliver on our mission in the traditional way; we have missed the in-person interactions that we’ve come to expect through our work. We have slowed our progress toward increasingly engaging underrepresented audiences; although we have doubled-down on our commitment to seeing that happen both in a public statement we released in early June and in our activities since then. We were unsuccessful in securing additional operational funds to balance our budget; as a result of that we have had to eliminate positions – people who held tremendous institutional knowledge with their years of service and were as much a recognizable face of our organization as anyone else. Our Agents were handed administrative furlough letters from the University, our staff have sacrificed programming time to help us cover necessary operational functions, our youth programs have lost revenue-building opportunities to sponsor their activities – some of whom won’t get a ‘next time’ rain check. The list goes on, but we’re optimistic about the future – and we have very good reason for that.

There is no doubt in my mind that the people who comprise this local unit are the best you’ll find. Among our ranks, you’ll find Extension Professionals like Susan Farley whose career in Extension serves as an inspiration to us all. She was recognized with the Outstanding Extension Professional Award from among her 250 colleagues across the state. She’s coming off of a three-year rotation as President of her state association. Cierra Smallwood and Cheryl Barnes, our SNAP-Ed Nutrition Educators have set a remarkable pace of innovation in delivering much needed educational information to low-income audiences across the county. Sharon Ashworth, our Horticulture Program Assistant who not only shepherds the Extension Master Gardener program, but also has co-authored the recently-released series of publications called Planting Natives in Northeast Kansas that has gained attention across the state and the Great Plains. Tom Buller, our Horticulture Agent, was a founding member of the food hub this community worked for years to prepare for and he continues to work with the leadership of that group. Tom also leads one of three system-wide Transdisciplinary Teams – the one focused on Local Foods. Laurie Schuck is not only the best Farm Tour Coordinator around, she is also skilled at making sure that all of the featured farms on the Kaw Valley Farm Tour have what they need to be successful over the two-day event that’s held every October! Her ability to recruit more than 30 farms to participate in this year’s event and to draw thousands of people – safely – out to those farms was remarkable! Nickie Harding continues to ensure that the monumental effort of keeping a robust 4-H program up and running continues to impress. Without Nickie, I’m sure that Kaitlyn Peine, our 4-H and Youth Development Agent, would be the first to tell you that our programs would not be what they are. Kaitlyn has worked hard this year to provide meaningful experiences for youth in the program despite COVID restrictions. She has also recently been elected as the President-Elect of her state association! Carol Taul, our Office Professional, is a consistent high-achiever with her execution of handling our fiscal affairs. More important, though is Carol’s ability to use her comprehensive knowledge of Douglas County to the benefit of our operation. Mallory Meek, our Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent, with just a year-and-a-half under her belt in this role, has established a reputation as a local unit agent who is unafraid of brokering the difficult conversations on mental and behavioral health in the ag community. Her partnership with County Commissioner Nancy Thellman and colleagues at Bert Nash have set an example of collaboration in her field. I also want to acknowledge Margaret Kalb, the Douglas County Fair Board Executive Secretary – she is the heartbeat of the Douglas County Fair, and those board members are some of the hardest working board members in this community. We are thrilled to be such close partners with Margaret and the Fair Board – earlier this year we had a tremendous task of determining what the 2020 Fair would look like and we held what we believe was the first Joint Fair Board/Extension Council Executive Board meeting in history in this county – and the fair was a wonderful experience thanks to that cooperation! Last, but not least, I want to recognize Marty Scott. In many ways, we’ve been working hard toward Marty’s arrival for years. Thanks to support from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas, and local partners, Marty joined us earlier this quarter as the first Executive Director for LiveWell Douglas County. While she’s still getting her feet planted here, we know that she will increase that coalition’s capacity exponentially!  

As you can tell, we have a full complement of tradition-holding, but mold-breaking Extension Professionals here. For those reasons, and because of the wonderful people of Douglas County that we have the opportunity to interact with – interested activists, supportive stakeholders, dedicated volunteers, curious citizens and committed Extension Council members – I am honored to serve as the director of this local unit. Thank you for your support and thank you for standing with us to help us meet our mission.