December 17, 2019 | By: Carol Lea Spence

FLORENCE, Ky., — Many offices fill the final days before the holidays with Secret Santas, luncheons and parties. University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension staff in Kenton County, however, decided to share their blessings by volunteering together at Master Provisions, a local nonprofit organization that connects resources to needs in five states and multiple countries.

During a morning in December, Kenton County extension agents, assistants and support staff gathered in Master Provisions’ warehouse in Florence to sort donated winter coats for local distribution. There was a lot of laughter and chatter as they spread the coats out on long tables and rapidly sorted them into male, female and child piles, then hung them on clothing racks and wrapped in plastic. Though there were other volunteers working that morning, it wasn’t hard to distinguish the Cooperative Extension volunteers, dressed, since they all were dressed in T-shirts emblazoned with UK and Kentucky State University logos, custom-made for the occasion by 4-H agent Denise Donahue and staff member Vanessa Sturgill.

“I am so blessed,” said Kathy Byrnes, family and consumer sciences extension agent and event organizer. “My closets are bulging, because I have too many clothes, and that’s ridiculous when you think about it. We all have had that experience where you drive a short way down the road, and there are kids who are hungry and cold. It’s just heartbreaking. I thought this was something we could do as a group to help out.”

This is the third time within the past six months that area extension folks have volunteered at Master Provisions. In June, family and consumer sciences agents, statewide, took on a service project. Byrnes, Joan Bowling and Linda Brown-Price, Kenton County FCS agents, volunteered on the food side of Master Provisions, sorting through bread to make sure nothing was moldy or torn, but more than anything, helping employees do tasks they may not have time to do. In October, Extension Homemakers volunteered during a Homemaker Day, and now, in December, the entire office was giving a few hours of their time.

Master Provisions’ work began in 1994, when founder Roger Babik learned that Ukrainians needed clothing and jobs to get on their feet after the fall of the Soviet Union. Now 25 years later, the organization serves 43,000 people a month through an extensive food pantry, clothing drives and family care. In 2018, the organization distributed 3.7 million pounds of food to more than 140 partner nonprofit agencies from five states. These agencies sign up to purchase food for 10 cents a pound. The organization also holds a monthly mobile food pantry, which often serves about 1,000 people in a single day.

“Anyone in need is welcome to come to that. That’s the one thing we do that connects directly to people, rather than other agencies,” said Victoria Short, communications manager for Master Provisions. “The need is definitely there. We’ve noticed a lot of poverty, how it’s changing. The working poor are definitely increasing, so we’re seeing a lot of families coming in from farther out that we didn’t see before.”

The clothing drives have expanded too, and the agency now collects clothing to be distributed not only locally, but also in Ghana, the Togolese Republic (Togo) and Honduras; 580 containers containing 20 million pounds of clothing and shoes have been shipped since 1994. In Honduras, the clothing goes to locally owned businesses to sell. In Togo, the clothes go to support a woman-run sewing industry, where clothes and materials are altered and repurposed.

“It’s a very well-oiled machine. They have such a good mission,” Byrnes said. “This has been a nice bonding day for us, too. We’re a big staff. We are always at different places, so it’s been wonderful to be able to get together in one place to do some behind-the-scenes work to help our community. It’s been a good Christmas experience.”

UK Cooperative Extension Service is part of the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, which is dedicated to improving people's lives through excellence in education, research and outreach.


Kathy Byrnes, 859-356-3155