Extension Networks Benefit Families, Communities

Article excerpt

Electronic extension networks expand the link of the land-grant system to communities. Information about child care, organizational collaborations, family strengths, science and technology, and health can be accessed as easily as turning on a computer.

In a culture where young men are more liable to die of gun shot wounds than from all natural causes combined, where 26 percent of U.S. children live in single parent families, and where one million children below the age of 14 care for themselves during nonschool hours, it becomes increasingly clear that community support for children and their families is vital.

But what makes community support programs succeed? Why do some flounder and ultimately fail, while other programs successfully assist families, protect children, and teach their participants how to set and reach goals that enhance their lives and their communities?

In 1995 researchers and program specialists from three land-grant universities - Virginia Tech, Utah State University, and Cornell University - decided to explore that question, in a big way. Using new technology and resources, and support dollars from the Annie E. Casey Foundation through the National Network for Family Resiliency (NNFR) of the Cooperative States Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) of USDA, they took their question, and resulting answers, into cyberspace.

"We decided to network on a national level," says C. Sue Miles, extension program leader with Cornell Cooperative Extension and a principal in the project Making a Difference: Community-based Programs That Last. "We combined older technology - telephone conferences and site visits - with techniques and resources available on the Internet. This is a different world, as many of us are finding. We're functioning in different ways and doing more than we could have done before because of the new technologies."

The goal of the project was to identify examples of sustained community programs that could serve as models in program planning and implementation. Recognizing that, by definition, community-based programs need to be adapted to the needs of the local communities they serve, the project sought to identify model programs that have demonstrated effectiveness in a community over a sustained period of time.

First, the researchers came up with working criteria for the programs they would study. Once those criteria were established, the research group took their project to the Internet. They asked for nominations of programs through CYFERNet (Children, Youth, and Families Electronic Resource Network). This electronic, Internet-based children, youth, and family information and communication service was created in 1992 by the national Cooperative Extension System, the National Agricultural Library, and the Children, Youth, and Family Consortium at the University of Minnesota. To add to the list of programs, the researchers also telephoned a list of experts and asked for nominations.

"We started with a list of 300 community-based programs at various sites across the country, then narrowed the list to 60 promising programs for study," Miles says. Initial nominations received through the Internet (or by telephone) were followed up with audiotaped telephone interviews and a formalized rating by five reviewers. After careful review, the list was further narrowed to eight programs, which were then contacted and visited.

"Overall, the working criteria were evident in each successful program," Miles says. "The community-based programs that were studied were collaborative, comprehensive, accessible, inclusive, and accountable. In addition, we learned from our site visits that a combined service and education approach for the targeted audience greatly enhanced the impact of the programs. Leadership and vision, which we also noted during the site visits, were additional factors that proved to be of importance to program quality and sustainability. …