Extension Volunteers - the Front Line of Service

By Burbank, Will | Human Ecology Forum, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Extension Volunteers - the Front Line of Service


Burbank, Will, Human Ecology Forum


Volunteers are vital to Cornell Cooperative Extension efforts in New York State. Many serve as the primary connection between the educational resources of the university and local communities. The relationship is successful because extension volunteers are accorded respect and responsibility. And most agree they gain more than they give.

Is it legal to sell a boa constrictor to a 17-year-old?" A worried parent wanted to know. It wasn't a typical question, but then again, Shirley Jalso never knows what she'll be asked during her weekly shift as a volunteer for Cornell Cooperative Extension's Consumer Helpline. Other calls might involve questions about landlord-tenant relations, information on heating fuels, or a request for advice on the best way to clean a dirty broiler.

Jalso, a retired schoolteacher who has been answering questions like those for three years, has learned to listen carefully and to help people clarify any underlying issues. In the case of the boa constrictor, for example, Jalso and her caller soon realized that the problem wasn't about the legality of selling snakes as much as it was about the breakdown of communication within a family.

"All that parent really needed was someone with a good ear who could help her think through the problem," she says.

Jalso is but one of the more than 1,200 volunteers who generously give of their time to help in the work of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. Volunteers serve on the association's board and various advisory committees, assist with office work, staff the consumer assistance phone line, help maintain the perennial gardens surrounding the headquarters building, and take key roles in organizing events. The vast majority are involved in youth development work through 4-H.

This level of volunteer support is hardly limited to Tompkins County. Volunteers are a vitally important part of Cornell Cooperative Extension efforts in every county of New York. Statewide, more than 68,000 extension volunteers play a critical role extending the reach of the 673 professional extension educators.

"Volunteers are the lifeblood of Cornell Cooperative Extension, the frontline workers," says D. Merrill Ewert, director. "They frequently are the primary connection between the educational resources of the university and the problems we seek to address in local communities. Serving as both teachers and learners, they draw on the research of the university and share what they learn with their friends, neighbors, and communities."

This partnership between university researchers, professional extension educators, and the cadre of highly motivated volunteers, Ewert adds, is what makes Cornell Cooperative Extension unique.

Yet it's not enough to enlist a vast army of volunteers. To be effective, organizations must also work to keep their volunteers happy and actively engaged in activities that help further the mission. How does this happen in Cornell Cooperative Extension?

"It's something like a dance," explains Donald J. Tobias, associate professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management and department extension leader. "Things work best when the individuals and organizations move together to the same beat." Volunteers bring their own needs, Tobias notes, and these often change over time.

Linda Byster, an extension educator in Dutchess County, notes that those in her county association always take care to screen, interview, and orient new volunteers to see that they are given assignments that match their skills and interests. People interested in volunteering for their Family Budget Counseling program, for example, are made aware that having financial knowledge is not enough. They also must have a sincere interest in working with people under stress on a one-to-one basis.

Paul Bonaparte-Krogh, director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, says that in such a diverse organization as Cornell Cooperative Extension it's relatively easy to match people with something they care about, but that it takes continuous effort. …

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