In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing, agents with the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service are finding innovative ways to reach, educate and entertain their clients. One way they are doing so is by packaging up the extension office and making it available to their clients.
“We are doing a lot of online program delivery during this time, but my county is rural and not everyone has hi-speed internet access, and some of our activities require supplies that people would have to go to the store to get. So, I wanted to do something different,” said Melissa Schenck, Washington County 4-H youth development agent. “By putting our programs and the corresponding supplies in brown bags, we are helping our clients continue to practice social distancing while giving them activities that help them learn by doing and pass the time.”
The idea for the Brown Bag Programs came out of the 4-H agent social media group, where Kentucky agents virtually gather to share ideas. Since March 16, Kentucky extension agents assembled and/or distributed more than 4,200 bags.
In Washington County, Schenck works with Cabrina Buckman, family and consumer sciences agent; Laura Brady, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program assistant; Dennis Morgeson, horticulture agent, and staff assistants Cheryl Mattingly and Darice Russell to find activities and programs to fill the bags. Many of the included items are surplus inventory in the office.
“Right now, I’m bagging flour for an activity where people can make a stress ball using it and a balloon,” Schenck said. “In this package, I’ll also include instructions to make the ball, information on ways to deal with stressful situations, handling emotions and writing prompts.”
Other packages the office has assembled include activities for how to sew on a button, seed germination, woodworking kits, crocheting by needlepoint and dissecting owl pellets. Anyone in the county is welcome to pick up a package.
Extension staff leave the packages outside of the office in totes and use social media to let people know when they are available. Schenck said the extension office’s Facebook page is getting four to five times more traffic than normal. Some of their Brown Bag Program posts have received more than 5,000 views, which is nearly half of the county’s 12,000 residents.
“I thought I would start out with 24 bags and see how it went the first part of this week. Within the past week, we have given out 125 packages,” Schenck said. “This is the first time that we have seen some of these people come to the extension office, and that is wonderful. We are so glad they are turning to extension.”
Dayna Fentress, Hardin County family and consumer sciences extension agent, said the extension office is having great success with the package programs too. Like Washington County, the office is offering the Brown Bag Program, but they are also coordinating a “Snail Mail Surprise Club.” Like the name suggests, club members receive packages filled with extension activities and programs through the postal service.
“Within 30 minutes, we had 92 children from 51 families in Hardin County become members of the Snail Mail Surprise Club,” she said. “We had to temporarily close the sign-ups because the demand was greater than we anticipated, but we are working to meet that need and hope to reopen them soon.”
Hardin County extension staff mail packages to club members each Monday. Packages include Plate it Up Kentucky Proud recipes, activities and their corresponding supplies, a newsletter for parents and a handwritten note from an extension staff member. Activities include topics like seed planting, healthy lunches and oral health. With each mailing, children receive a small prize like a toothbrush or colored pencils
“While they are mailed to children, we really wanted these packages to include information for the whole family to learn from and enjoy,” Fentress said. “We also wanted our activities to be educational without feeling like more schoolwork since they’re all doing home-school as well.”
The Hardin County Extension office will mail out the packages during each week of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended quarantine.