When Patricia Spofford left Cheshire Correctional Facility after teaching her first class there in 2018, she says she breathed in the Saturday morning air and reflected on how the men she had just been with did not have the same freedom.
Yet even though they were incarcerated, including some who would remain there for years to come, they wanted to improve, she said, and looked to her and a UConn extension program to do just that.
“I knew every time I showed up that I was making a difference,” says Spofford. “The prisoners enjoyed it so much that I came on Saturday mornings and met them for two hours and taught them values and spirituality, how to deal with confinement, communication skills, ways to talk to an employer about their own. background, and how to write a resume and an interview for a job.
UConn People Empowering People at Correctional Institutions, colloquially known as Prison PEP, is just one of UConn’s outreach programs run by the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources. Many focus on agriculture-related topics, including Extension’s popular master gardener courses and food security workshops. Others, like UConn 4-H, offer STEM, healthy living, community services, and leadership classes in addition to traditional farming activities.
But some, like Prison PEP and its counterpart PEP Communities, are reaching out to the wider community, seeking to involve populations interested in honing certain skills.
“We always work hand in hand with the needs of a community,” explains Bonnie Burr ’83 (CAHNR), deputy director and department head in the CAHNR Extension Department. “We do a lot of surveys in the community. Historically, we’ve worked on food insecurity, food security, and we’ve always worked a lot with the agriculture industry – whether it’s plants, animals, grass, even robotics now with products. dairy. We also have a strong team around climate change and climate adaptation / climate resilience. “
Half of Extension’s budget comes from grants, or $ 21.4 million in 2020, and volunteers like Spofford provide the equivalent of about $ 4.4 million of work per year out of the estimated 142,000 hours they spend. Extension offers 2,800 programs in 169 municipalities across the state. , some that people might not even realize have their roots in UConn.
Burr says Extension has a role to play in training farmers on how to harvest and store their fruits, vegetables and meat safely for sale at farmers’ markets; work with municipal representatives on managing stormwater runoff and keeping road salt out of the water table; test the quality of water in schools; provide after-school programs for students; introduce Connecticut-grown produce into school cafeterias; and inventory of the state trail network so that municipal planners can maximize economic development.
“It’s stuff like that, that we do behind the scenes, that people wouldn’t necessarily think we’re involved in,” Burr explains. “We’re really focused on networking with people and making those connections, so that a community has the opportunity to thrive in ways that it didn’t have before. “
A prime example came in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Bill Davenport ’86 (CAHNR), Litchfield County Extension Educator and 4-H Coordinator (CAHNR), built Operation Impact community and has donated 220,000 pounds of statewide pantry dairy products to date when demand from restaurants, schools and hotels was nil.
“These are the kinds of things we can do with Extension,” Burr explains. “We are flexible, we can pivot quickly to identify needs.
The Cooperative Extension System is a national initiative that dates back to the early 1900s, when the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 bound the federal government and land universities for the benefit of rural communities across the country.
CAHNR Senior Associate Dean for Extension and Diversity, Michael O’Neill, says extension was developed to take scientific and technical ideas from universities and convey them to rural communities in the United States. Today, there are 130 institutions that host extension systems, including UConn.
He is particularly proud of the recent efforts by UConn Extension to involve students from the different schools and colleges of the University in outreach work in the communities. Engineering students working as extension interns could help a city on a geospatial project by collecting high-resolution images for land use purposes, for example.
This internship program started with four students and now has between 15 and 20 students per year who, in addition to their community work, take a leadership training course and meet with UConn’s Career Development Center to discuss strategies. jobs, such as describing skills learned during their project on a curriculum vitae.
This benefits both the community and the students, and meets the purpose of Extension – reaching out.
“At the end of the day, there’s something really special about being able to help a farmer, or help a community, or help a family, and seeing in their faces when you’re done that you made a difference, “says O’Neill. “I think all of our Extension employees feel that when they work with young people, the elderly, people in prison, wherever they are, they get this real satisfaction from just helping to solve a problem or at least bring people closer to those solutions and do it. with science.
Burr says that when she started with Extension, a mentor described it like this:
“Popularization is a bit like missionaries, a bit like the Peace Corps. You go to a community and do all you can to take care of them. You listen to what they need, see if you can help network. There will never be enough of you, there will never be enough money to do the job you need to do. But you’re just going to keep doing it because you recognize that community is what’s really important to all the families and businesses you work with.
Spofford says a man who participated in PEP in prison had been incarcerated for 20 years, could never find the dedication to complete a growth program, and told him after the first PEP course in prison that he wanted to graduate from it.
Then he missed the next session.
In week three, he explained that the guards would not let him out of his unit because his name was not on the approved list and he was not allowed to leave. Spofford says he begged her to look him up and check with the guards if he was still away, but he wasn’t. He completed PEP in prison and became a mentor in other programs he later completed.
“For me, it is success because I hope he will take it forward when he gets out of prison,” she said.
Again, this ties in with the Extension mission.
“If a person is healthy, it helps their community; if they are active, it helps their community; if they know things like storm water or the environment, it helps their community. All of these extension education programs are hopefully useful to them as individuals, but that same value then spills over into their community, ”said O’Neill.