OSU Extension highlughts volunteers accross Oklahoma

April 11, 2024

April is National Volunteer Month and there’s no better time to shine a spotlight on the thousands of volunteers who bring life to programs offered through Oklahoma State University Extension. For 110 years, OSU Extension has been working to make the lives of Oklahomans better.

With experts providing research-based information, more than 5,000 volunteers statewide help disseminate that information through a variety of methods, including 4-H clubs, Master Gardeners and Oklahoma Home and Community Education activities such as demonstration gardens, camps, workshops, school enrichment programs and more.

OSU Extension also benefits from the thousands of people who volunteer at fairs, contests and other activities. In 2023, adult and youth volunteers spent 232,000 hours enhancing the quality of life in Oklahoma. Through these efforts, OSU Extension is providing education for everyone everywhere. Volunteers are valuable partners in the OSU Extension mission and devote their time annually to programming, teaching, and facilitating events and activities.

No matter what is happening in OSU Extension, a volunteer has some role in ensuring success. “I am very grateful for the volunteers who expand the capacity and impact of Extension programs,” said Damona Doye, associate vice president of OSU Extension. “With limited funding and personnel, they are absolutely essential to Extension’s efforts to improve our communities, our state and our world.”

Oklahoma 4-H Youth Development The Oklahoma 4-H Youth Development program is the youth segment of OSU Extension.

With an office in all 77 counties and offering more than 60 project areas, 1,176 adult volunteers and 500 youth volunteers play a key role in helping 4-H’ers develop life skills through hands-on learning opportunities. Karla Knoepfli, OSU Extension associate specialist in the state 4-H office, said volunteers are the backbone of the 4-H Youth Development program.

“Our volunteers help us foster healthy youth-adult partnerships and positive youth development,” Knoepfli said.

“4-H values service to others and our volunteers play a key role in modeling that behavior for our 4-H members. Through their willingness to share their time and talents, they continue to make the best better.”

An educator by trade and at heart, Alicia Brents saw the 4-H program as a way to further her students’ education.

Not only did she teach in the classroom, but she also volunteered in 1972 to become the Swink Public Schools 4-H volunteer leader.

Fifty-two years later, she continues to serve Choctaw County youth as the leader of the Fort Towson 4-H Club.

“Being a teacher and a 4-H volunteer leader go hand in hand, and back then I was looking for ways to further my students’ education by getting them involved in different 4-H projects,” Brents said.

“4-H has so much to offer, and it all relates to classroom learning in some fashion.” Brents said her students weren’t the only ones learning along the way. When she volunteered to be the land-judging coach, she took time to expand her knowledge.

“I studied and learned along with my students and club members,” she said.

“These experiences enhanced their school education and improved their public speaking skills. I enjoy getting a student who is timid and seeing them excel at these contests.”

Brents, who was named the 2023 4-H Lifetime Volunteer of the Year, said she believes in the power of volunteerism and feels fortunate to work alongside other dedicated volunteers who give positive opportunities to youth. Oklahoma Home and Community Education From its inception in 1935, members of Home Demonstration clubs, now known as Oklahoma Home and Community Education, have worked hard to improve the lives of state residents.

Steeped in traditional lessons of food preservation, family relations, and safe and healthy meal preparation, group members continue to embrace these time-honored values while meeting the needs of community members in modern times.

Suzette Barta, community engagement coordinator for OSU’s College of Education and Human Sciences – Extension, Engagement and Continuing Education, said nearly 2,700 women and men comprise 244 Oklahoma Home and Community Education groups in 73 counties across Oklahoma.

“Our group members are doing great work all across the state and making a positive impact in their communities,” Barta said. “They work with OSU Extension to identify issues in their communities and find solutions.” Kathie Tanner has been a member of the Lunch Bunch Oklahoma Home and Community Education group in Payne County for four years, after retiring from a 26-year career at OSU.

“Sometimes people think of us as a group that just does cooking and sewing activities, but we do all kinds of things that benefit the community,” Tanner said.

“We’ve organized coat drives for the schools. The Lunch Bunch volunteers for the Perkins for Kids Christmas Shop, and we also donate items the kids can shop for so they will have gifts for their family members. And, OHCE members are famous for the pies we make during the Payne County Fair.”

One of her favorite activities, one in which all six Payne County Oklahoma Home and Community Education groups participated, was making bibs and lap blankets for nursing home residents in Payne and Pawnee counties. Some group members continue to keep nursing homes supplied with the homemade items.

“The OHCE members across the state are a great bunch of people who all work hard to help make their communities better,” Tanner said.

“I love being a part of this organization.” Master Gardeners Gardening has long been a popular activity, with interest continuing to grow every year. While OSU Extension has several horticulture experts across the state who provide research-based information to gardening enthusiasts, the Oklahoma Master Gardeners serve as an additional pipeline to extend that knowledge to the public. David Hillock, OSU Extension consumer horticulturist and statewide Extension Master Gardener Volunteer program coordinator, said there are nearly 1,250 volunteers in 23 counties.

“Master Gardeners are an active group and immerse themselves within their communities in various ways,” Hillock said. “They teach workshops, plant demonstration gardens, set up booths at home and garden shows, participate in farmers markets and are involved in elementary school programs. Master Gardeners are a valuable resource to OSU Extension and the state.”

Randy Freeland has been a Master Gardener in Payne County for 17 years. He has always had an interest in gardening, but after retiring in 2007 from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, he returned to Stillwater and joined the Master Gardener program.

“My house is in 100% shade, and I didn’t know a lot about gardening in the shade,” Freeland said.

“I was going into the Extension office and reading fact sheets to learn more. I always enjoyed growing vegetables, but now it’s more shade plants, shrubs and flowers.”

Being involved with the Master Gardeners keeps Freeland busy. He said they participate in the United Way Day of Caring, serve in various ways at the Payne County Fair and regularly present educational workshops at The Botanic Garden at OSU.

“My favorite thing about being a Master Gardener is the one-on-one interaction I get during on-site visits working with gardeners. I can step in and help out Laura Payne, the Payne County Extension horticulture educator, when she’s out of town and the office is getting questions from the public,” he said.

“The Master Gardeners are truly an outreach and extension of the county Extension office.” Hillock said in addition to the 87,174 volunteer hours documented in 2023, Master Gardeners across the state have produced and donated 22,850 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables to local food pantries, shelters and other organizations to help put food on the tables of Oklahoma families dealing with food insecurity. Whether it be through 4-H, Oklahoma Home and Community Education or Master Gardeners, part of OSU Extension’s success is directly tied to the generosity and willingness of its volunteers.