December 18, 2020 | By: Carol Lea Spence

LEXINGTON, Ky., (Dec. 18, 2020) — The year 2020 isolated people in their homes due to health and safety concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. It also was a catalyst that opened the door to new ideas and skills for many people, thanks to creative University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension agents. If 2020 had a subtitle, it might be “Zooming through doors.”

When COVID-19 swept into the state in early March, extension agents suddenly had to rethink how they would offer their many in-person programs. Many said that having to redesign their programs for online learning opened new doors for them.

“We don’t have to have limits anymore. Whereas we could only take 15 or 20 people in a program before because of room constraints, now we can take hundreds, because it’s all online. We’re reaching different people. It’s definitely changed the future for us,” said Diane Mason, family and consumer sciences extension agent in Boone County.

The pandemic spurred Mason to offer Memory Banking, a program she hadn’t offered in a couple of years. The idea behind the project is to help people record or “bank” their memories in a variety of ways, which could include journals, photographs and drawings, and in the process, gain a better understanding of what those memories mean.

When a memory bank is shared with a family member or friend, it can help build or maintain quality relationships and also be used as a caregiving tool. Memory banks help individuals build legacies and exercise the mind. The process might uncover some events that are never talked about, but they shaped people and affected their behavior and decision-making. And if that person needs additional care in the future, banking memories can help caregivers make better decisions.

Mason said two of her participants were sisters who signed up online from different towns. One sister shared her story of being diagnosed with cancer. The other sister shared, possibly for the first time, how brave and strong she thought her sister was. Another participant shared her story about being the first African American girl to enroll in a school in Kenton County during the height of segregation and how her picture had appeared in a major news magazine.

“I think this is important now, more than ever, because we’re going through historic times,” Mason said. “If we don’t pass along the history to our loved ones, it’s going to get lost. There are so many stories to tell and so much information to share with families.”

When the pandemic struck, Fayette County Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education assistant Jacqui Denegri and horticulture agent Jamie Dockery had to quickly redesign their summer gardening/cooking series for students with Down syndrome. They had to take the entire program online. Families picked up garden packets Dockery made that gave them the things they needed to grow tomatoes and peppers in their yards. During the weekly sessions, he answered questions about how to manage their gardens. Denegri would structure some of her Zoom cooking classes around the homegrown ingredients.

She’s been teaching cooking skills to special needs students in-person for several years but using an online format actually helped many of the students relax.

“It actually worked out better, because they were in their own kitchens, so they were familiar with everything. They were more relaxed, I was more relaxed, and all the parents were involved this time,” Denegri said. “We could still communicate and still have a good time together. It made it a little easier, so I could focus more on watching their technique.”

Denegri led the students through recipes she had adapted from extension’s Teen Cuisine curriculum and used three web cameras from her base in the Fayette County Extension office teaching kitchen to help her illustrate techniques.

“At first, I was scared of Zoom, but I love Zoom now. I think that’s where we’re heading, because we’ll be able to offer in-person and online versions of the same class. Now there won’t be any excuse to miss my class,” she said, laughing.

Extension Homemakers in Lincoln County “zoomed” clear across the world in October to meet their fellow club members in the Philippines. The connections that were made strengthened the sister clubs and exposed folks on both sides of the world to a new culture.

Lincoln County Extension boasts the only two Extension Homemaker clubs in the Philippines. Leoni Mundelius is a Lincoln County Extension Homemaker leader whose family and friends in the Philippines were interested in the ways Homemakers serve their communities. Mundelius and family and consumer sciences agent Rita Stewart helped them form a club. Before long, they had formed a second club.

“The club members (in the Philippines) got actively involved in their communities, and they started doing feeding programs to serve needs there,” Stewart said. “We also worked with them to do a school supply drive and, recently, on a face mask program.”

The one problem? Individual club members have spoken and corresponded, but they had never met face-to-face. An annual Crafty Lock-in changed that. Because the pandemic forced the annual in-office all-night quilting marathon to move to Zoom this year, they were able to invite their Filipina club members to join them. It worked out perfectly, because the event where Extension Homemakers gather to finish quilting or other crafts projects occurred from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on a Friday night in Lincoln County. This was during the day on Saturday in the Philippines.

“It was awesome, because they’re our members, but we had never seen each other. It was great to be able to visit with them and learn about their culture and what they were doing and how things work there,” Stewart said.

The club members talked about plants and foods, as well as quilting and other crafts. One member in the Philippines walked the Lincoln County group around her garden.

By all accounts, the lock-in was a success. Stewart said they had about 52 people participate, which is more than double what the office can hold during a traditional in-person lock-in. Plus, people registered from around the state, not just Lincoln County.

“Agents all over the state from all program areas are trying to be as creative as we can,” she said. “We’re all trying to reach and serve our people with our educational programs, just in a very different way.”

UK Cooperative Extension Service is part of the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. With its land-grant partner, Kentucky State University, the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service brings the university to the people in their local communities, addressing issues of importance to all Kentuckians.

Contact: 

Diane Mason diane.mason@uky.edu; Jacqui Denegri j.denegri@uky.edu; Rita Stewart rstewart@uky.edu