August 16, 2006 | By: Terri McLean
SANDY HOOK, Ky.

Despite the thousands of miles that lay between Gwenda Adkins and her native eastern Kentucky, she couldn’t have felt more at home traveling through the foothills and mountains of Serbia this summer. But it wasn’t the landscape that struck the most familiar chord. It was the people.

“Rural people – we’re alike,” said Adkins as she recounted her experiences in the Eastern European country. “I had so much in common with the people over there.”

Perhaps that explains why Adkins, a longtime Extension agent in Elliott County, was chosen to travel to Serbia to help develop an education and outreach organization similar to the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service. She conducted a training workshop for people who might one day become Extension personnel. 

“I think to be successful in working with people, you have to be one of them,” said Adkins, who traveled to Serbia as part of a cooperative agreement between the UK College of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service. It was her second trip to the country this year.

“They knew I was on their level,” she said. “They would ask me what it is like where I live, so I would pull some pictures off my laptop, of my mom and dad in front of the tobacco barn sawing wood for the winter. I talked about the hills and the streams where we lived…. They felt like I was one of them.”

Adkins – “a girl from the head of the holler in one of the poorest counties in Kentucky” – likewise discovered a strong connection with the Serbians who participated in the rural development workshop. It was a connection between people who share a passion for their past and a vision for the future, she said. 

“The area where we’re working and the people we’re working with are very much like those in Elliott County and eastern Kentucky who are trying to build upon what they have,” she said. 

Adkins conducted the workshop along with Mike Reed, director of international programs at the College of Agriculture, and Ron Hustedde, Extension professor in community and leadership development. She focused her efforts on agritourism, a subject she has become familiar with as Elliott County struggles to make the transition from growing tobacco to other agricultural pursuits. She also used her experience in asset-based development to help participants learn to recognize and build upon their strengths, instead of getting bogged down in their weaknesses.

“They’re just beginning to build on their agricultural assets to capitalize on the tourist dollars,” she said. “They have beautiful mountains and streams, beautiful clear rivers. They have horses, cattle, grapes and vineyards, and sheep. And the history; gosh, it’s such a rich historical place.”

One participant, who also served as a tour guide for his American visitors, was a veterinarian who had been unable to make a living in his chosen profession because there are too few animals in a country that has been wracked by war and turmoil. Instead, he’s using his training to help the Serbian Ministry of Agriculture preserve some of the country’s native animal species.

The man, named Sergej, is also working to preserve his once-thriving village by opening a bed and breakfast in his grandfather’s house. The bed and breakfast will complement plans to develop a horseback riding trail on a nearby mountainside.

“It’s amazing to hear them talk about the things they are doing in their country that they haven’t recognized as assets, as things they could use to develop their economy,” Adkins said.

Adkins and her colleagues also taught workshop participants communications skills, including how to run a facilitated meeting.

“They had never thought of doing a facilitated meeting the way we do,” she said. “It was totally new to them.”

It was also successful, Adkins said. She and her colleagues helped two tourism-related groups that had never worked together before to plan and carry out a facilitated meeting. As a result of that first meeting, several goals were met and more joint meetings were planned.

“They were pleased that they made that much progress,” she said.

Reed credits Adkins for adding a “real-world dimension” to the workshop that might otherwise have been missing.

“During breaks, they flocked to Gwenda to congratulate her on the presentations and to tell her their stories, too. Her contribution to the success of the workshop – and let me assure you it was a big success – was monumental,” Reed said.

While the Serbian participants learned much, Adkins says she, too, benefited greatly from the experience.

“I could never explain how going to Serbia has affected me,” she said. “It was a fantastic learning experience, a professional growth experience. It gave me a perspective beyond what I normally work with.”

The Serbian partnership – and it has become a partnership, with several Serbian agriculture officials having already visited Kentucky and Elliott County – will likely prove to be beneficial for Adkins’ community in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, as well. 

“I learned so much from them that I can apply to Elliott County,” she said. “There are a lot of things I want to share – the excitement of the people in Serbia and their work ethic. They don’t quit. … It’s that drive to go forward, to do more even though they’re doing a lot already.”

Likewise, Adkins wants to help her community embrace its cultural heritage much like the Serbians have embraced theirs.

“Sometimes, it’s hard for the people of eastern Kentucky to be proud of our culture when it has been portrayed in a negative way for so many years. That’s the reason for the strong effort to develop cultural and community pride in our communities. We should be proud of where we’re from and our ancestry,” she said.

Adkins has already shared some of her experiences through local newspaper columns, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

“They’re very proud that I’ve been chosen to spotlight Elliott County internationally, and they’re very supportive,” she said.

Next February Adkins plans to present a program about Serbia for International Month and is hopeful she can share it with counties all over the state.

“I want to do that for a lot of reasons, to show where I have been and where Elliott County has been, but also to show that we have soul mates in other places that we have never thought about. They are doing and working and have the same concerns we have,” she said.

Contact: 

Gwenda Adkins, 606-738-6400, Mike Reed, 859-257-7259