“Sit back, find a comfy seat and get ready for some excitement.” Reggie Morris, Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Agent for 4-H Youth Development for the City of Alexandria, opens the yearly review of accomplishments for public officials and the community in Arlington and Alexandria on Dec. 11. In the virtual presentation he “challenges you to find a way to come together to continue to improve the lives of Alexandrians, to engage and be involved.”
Morris explains that 4-H, one of the Extension programs, had never experienced anything like 2020 in 100 years. They had to find new ways to network with friends and make the best better. Morris said “talent is everywhere but opportunity is not” with unequal access to technology or healthy food. So this the 4-H counselors turned their traditional summer camp into a virtual experience for 71 campers with a campfire, cooking “so we didn’t have to just survive. We could thrive.”
The theme running throughout the review of the Virginia Cooperative Extension programs was learning how to pivot and the resulting success in agriculture and natural resources, energy, financial management, nutrition and gardening.
Extension Agent for Alexandria and Arlington, Kirsten Ann Conrad, explained the Virginia Cooperative Extension metamorphosis in 2020 with no office, no phone, or microscope, but a 30 percent increase in services with help desk contacts. She said in 2019 there had been 244 active volunteers, service hours of 18,853 and community service hours of 4,769.
In 2020 the logistics changed as classes moved to virtual. The Master Gardeners program held 45 classes on 40 topics with 25 volunteers and 3,871 attendees.
Social media was explosive with 190,000 visitors, 550,000 views, virtual classes and a YouTube channel.
Conrad reviewed the goals in several important areas including native and sustainable landscape practices, invasive species management, tree canopy health and maintenance. She says they have 19 online programs and six community gardens. There is an online seed request form with free vegetables, herbs, and flower seeds with three neighborhood pick up forms. “There is a new batch of seeds in the office now for distribution in February.”
Stephanie Tsao, manager of the Energy Masters Program said they train about 30 volunteers each year on lighting conservation and how to get air and water leaks out of apartments including demonstrations on how to caulk the leaks. She says, “adjusting to COVID was especially hard on programs like ours. We set up caulk stations outside and showed how to use thermal cameras.” She says the program trains volunteers to go out and train others in Arlington and Alexandria.
Milena Montoya, family nutrition assistant, says the Family Nutrition program adjusted their classes to teach nutrition by Zoom. “People created meals at home along with the instructor.”
Aisha Salazar, extension agent, family and consumer science, said before this started they did food demonstrations at ALIVE, AFAC and Arlington-55 Programs. Now they have transitioned to creating videos. “You can’t taste right now but you can see carrots.”
In addition, they have focused on recipes for gardeners to feed the community.
This year, 50 gardens donated over five months to feed their neighbors in Arlington and Alexandria. Seven thousand pounds of fresh produce was collected from local gardens with over 18,000 pounds gleaned for the effort.
Kirsten Kelley, extension agent for FCS, SNAP and Education, talked about the SNAP programs for low-income families at work in response to the pandemic which transitioned to virtual. Likewise the LEAP program took its program to Head Start teachers virtually and produced information on how to stretch your budget.
The Financial Masters Program followed the theme of learning how to pivot with the 1x1 on-site coaching, credit counseling, and financial simulations for youth.
Aisha Salazar said over 40 participated in the virtual financial coaching. In addition, one of the most popular programs is the Money Smart Reality Store to introduce students to finance and budgets including debt management and financial budgets. Four hundred students participated in April. She said in 2021 they plan to have a virtual help desk.
Congressman Don Beyer (D-8) said this is a time when food, energy and natural gardens create lifelines for the community, especially now. “We must have an agricultural ethos.” He added one of his favorite authors is Wendell Berry, the grandfather of the slow food movement who believed in sustainable agriculture and the interconnectedness of life. “Americans must respect the agricultural ethic.”
Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station researchers and specialists work in Blacksburg and at the state’s Agricultural Research and Extension Centers to create the knowledge that they share with VCE agents. The information is passed down through the research-based education programs to help the people of Arlington County and the City of Alexandria improve their lives.