Agents of Change

For 100 years, WVU Extension Service has been helping individuals and communities across West Virginia come up with solutions for needs of all kinds.


Photos Courtesy of WVU Extension

There are few documents that have stood the test of time—the Bible, the U.S. Constitution, and, since May 8, 1914, the Smith-Lever Act, though you may not know it. The Smith-Lever Act changed the way education was delivered. One hundred years later it is still serving Americans as it takes the research and knowledge of land-grant universities into communities and rural areas across the country.

The national Cooperation Extension System was established in 1914. “It’s interesting that 100 years later, the basic tenets of the mission of the Extension Service still survive,” says Steve Bonanno, West Virginia University Extension Service interim director. “What does that say about the Smith-Lever Act and how strong that mission was? They really had to have some foresight, didn’t they? It makes you amazed at the statesmanship of the politicians at the time—that they could craft legislation that would stand for 100 years.”

But what exactly is the Extension Service and what does it do for West Virginians? Answering that broad question is one of the greatest challenges faced by Steve and the more than 450 Extension faculty, agents, and volunteers who work across the Mountain State. “There’s not a lot we don’t address,” Steve says. “As an organization, we have more than 80 programs statewide in addition to locally identified programs that help community members from infancy through senior adulthood.” The WVU Extension is divided into four basic units—4-H or youth development; family and health programs; community, workforce, and economic development initiatives; and agriculture and natural resource education. In each of the state’s 55 counties, Extension agents live and work with community members to identify local issues, work with WVU to research the issues, and bring solutions back to communities. “There’s not a part of your life we don’t touch. We help your kids. We do family nutrition education and family budgeting. Before you even have kids, we do relationship preparation. As you get older, we talk about budgeting and retirement,” says Donald Reed, 4-H youth development agent for McDowell County. “There’s not a season of life that Extension can’t help you make better.”

By that account Hoke Smith and Asbury Lever were successful in their efforts a century ago to increase accessibility to education. The original mission was simple—take the land-grant university to the people. Make universities across the U.S. more accessible. Be the outreach arm of the university. “The core of our mission really remains the same. That’s part of what’s magical about Extension,” says Ann Bailey Berry, associate director of WVU Extension. “The reason we were started remains the reason why we are still in business today.”

The needs and demands of communities across the state are ever-changing. Where one community might be desperate for an after-school program to keep children out of trouble, another might need guidance on healthy food choices, and yet another might turn to an Extension agent for help with a community garden. “When you look at what Extension is to West Virginia, you will see in every county an Extension agent, but behind that agent is an army of volunteers who are local, trusted, helping their neighbors help themselves. Extension agents used to be called ‘agents of change,’ and in truth, that is still the reality,” Donald says.

During World War I, the national Extension System was part of efforts to increase wheat acreage, market agricultural products, and promote food preservation. During the Depression, Extension helped producers with farm management and marketing programs and organized farmer cooperatives. At the same time, agents worked with families on household management, gardening, canning, nutrition, and other skills useful in rural life. During World War II, Extension was again active in promoting food production and preservation and developed programs to provide seed, fertilizer, and gardening tools for 20 million gardens. Every year in West Virginia, 85,000 children participate in 4-H, the largest youth program in the U.S. Programs like Energy Express promote reading and nutrition, and the Extension’s Junior Firefighter Camp is one of only a few in the nation that gets youth involved early in local emergency response.

Over the years more programs have been added, but the Extension’s mission remains the same. “Part of Extension’s responsibility is to be responsive to local communities, so the basic mission survives. But how the agents respond changes,” Steve says. West Virginia’s communities serve as the agents’ living classrooms and needs continue to be met because the Extension listens. “It’s a real strength—listening to the local communities and what they identify as their priorities and needs, and establishing how the university can help address those. It’s a clear strength of Extension Service that has allowed us to survive for 100 years.”

Ask anyone involved with WVU Extension Service whether they believe the Extension will celebrate another 100 years of service a century from now and they will passionately and emphatically reply, “Yes.” The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 sought to bring the knowledge of land-grant universities into America’s rural communities, and WVU Extension has been doing just that for 10 decades. But it’s more than just education. “Knowledge alone does not change a community,” Donald says. “It’s knowledge and the skill set of an individual that changes a community. Extension never stops at just knowledge. You have to have the knowledge and you have to practice the skill you just learned, and that’s what makes Extension programming different—you walk away with a true skill you can use in your life.”

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