From 4-H to financial literacy to gardening, with food safety and conservation added to the mix, the programming provided by Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Arlington and Alexandria offices long has tended to be of the “high-touch” variety.
Until COVID arrived, that is.
As a result, 2020 has been “a little bit different from what we’re accustomed to,” said Reggie Morris, the Cooperative Extension agent for 4-H in Alexandria, at the organization’s annual showcase, which drew about 75 participants on Dec. 11.
In ordinary times, the event would have been a breakfast gathering at Fairlington Community Center, but with that facility closed (and in-person gatherings strictly limited anyway), Cooperative Extension went with an online program to highlight its services in a most unusual year.
“Even though things were different . . . we knew we could thrive. Arlington and Alexandria have discovered new ways to create opportunities for all,” said Morris, highlighting efforts by various facets of Virginia Cooperative Extension, a state agency overseen by Virginia Tech and Virginia State University.
“We have transformed,” said Kirsten Kelley, an Extension agent focused on family nutrition. She, and others, noted that much programming had moved online, including (for the first time) the annual 4-H summer camp, which operated for three days in a “virtual” environment.
“It was a place for our 71 campers to connect – and have some fun in a really tough summer,” said Caitlin Verdu, the Arlington counterpart to Morris.
Kirsten Conrad, an Extension agent focusing on agriculture and natural resources, noted the resilience of staff and volunteers during the tumultuous time.
“We continue to find ways to find alternatives,” she said, noting that many of the education programs have managed to see four to five times normal attendance now that they are available online.
(That said, Conrad and others pined for a return to in-person programming. “We hope to see a gradual resumption of our most popular events” as soon as possible, she said.)
The Alexandria half of the Virginia Cooperative Extension program operates out of the Nannie Lee Center, which is open on a limited basis. The Arlington half is based at Fairlington Community Center, which like many Arlington-government facilities has remained closed even when similar facilities in other jurisdictions have reopened. “We are really looking forward to returning to the Fairlington Community Center soon,” said Conrad, who has worked at her post for 14 years.
Among some of the programmatic highlights reported at the Dec. 11 gathering:
• Financial-education programming pivoted to a virtual environment, but not before hosting (prior to the pandemic) a “Reality Store” that provided 400 high-school students with a look at the choices they will have to make after leaving the nest.
• The Energy Masters program took some of its training out-of-doors and is working to keep volunteers prepped for the day when they can return to local homes to dispense energy-saving advice, said Stephanie Tsao, the program coordinator. The program this year marked the 1,000th unit it had supported with energy-saving advice.
• The 160-volunteer Arlington Regional Master Naturalists program “had to re-think everything” in the wake of the pandemic, said Marion Jordan, its president. Overall service hours provided by volunteers, which totaled 14,000 in 2019, unsurprisingly nosedived in 2020, but the organization (supported by Virginia Cooperative Extension and other state agencies) is finding ways to make an impact in the current environment.
• The 4-H program’s efforts with youth are continuing in creative ways, as well, Verdu said.
No matter what 2021 may bring, “4-H isn’t going anywhere,” she said.
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