Like quilts, the needs of West Virginians and their communities are varied and unique. It’s not hard to guess that the needs of a rural county without a grocery store are much different than those of more populated areas, where perhaps aging infrastructure may be the problem. Yet, patterns, just like in those lovingly stitched quilts, do emerge.
Jorge Atiles, the dean of WVU Extension and Engagement, wanted to strengthen and extend the fabric of Extension so that all West Virginians could benefit from its expertise, programs and resources to improve lives and livelihoods in the Mountain State. In 2021, WVU Extension launched a needs assessment survey in all 55 counties to gauge strengths and challenges; share that information with leaders; identify opportunities to work collaboratively with national, state and community partners; and better define the role WVU Extension plays in these communities. The survey was geared to match WVU’s three pillars — education, healthcare and broad-based prosperity.
The survey was the first step in reviewing and fine-tuning WVU Extension’s statewide programs to adapt to changing populations and demographics. Over the next year, faculty, staff, volunteers and others will examine and customize Extension programs to more closely align with the findings of the survey and the needs of local communities.
“What we found were many commonalities, but we also learned about the unique needs and opportunities these communities have – there is not a one-size-fits-all way to look at things,” Atiles explained. “WVU Extension and WVU cannot be nimble and attentive to the different needs of our state if we don’t listen to those living and working in these communities. That is absolutely critical if we are to successfully carry out the University’s land-grant mission and work to enhance education, increase prosperity and improve health outcomes.”
If a particular county has a high population of children who are being cared for by grandparents or other relatives, for instance, programs that provide resources and educational opportunities for this population may be offered. Evelyn Post, executive director, Central West Virginia Aging Services and president of the Braxton County Board Education, appreciated the opportunity to “have a seat at the table” during these conversations.
“It is imperative that Extension has external stakeholders who can give recommendations," Post said. “Extension is vital in serving our youth, our senior population and our school system, as well as county government. What would we do without them? They provide trusted, practical education by helping people help themselves. These conversations allow us to participate in improving the communities where we live and work.”
The survey found some unique circumstances in the state’s counties, particularly in economic development categories:
• Monongalia County and counties in the Eastern Panhandle are experiencing growth and its associated challenges.
• Rural Hardy County is seeing an increase in ethnically diverse communities.
• More than 20% of Pocahontas County’s workforce is in arts, entertainment and recreation.
• Calhoun County has the largest share of non-farm proprietors that shows that even these types of businesses can insulate local economies during economic downturns.
Common threads became clear in the survey’s results, as well. Improving career readiness in youth ages 14-8, increasing household and business access to broadband for both economic and educational development and decreasing high-risk behaviors in youths were the top-three statewide needs.
Communities want an enhanced focus on education, particularly in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math, as well as increased investments in early childhood education and in teaching life skills.
Health remains a prevalent need, and respondents expressed the desire for more nutrition education and resources to address food insecurity. Communities also need ways to improve mental health and stress management among both youth and adults and want ways to increase positive parenting practices to promote childhood development and success. Education and information to help enhance physical activity and address other health issues remain vital to West Virginia towns and cities.
Many residents and leaders also shared that programs to address poverty, unemployment rates and farm profitability are critical for their communities to thrive. And they also want to attract and retain young families to their areas, along with growing a local business community and an increase the number of local jobs that pay a living wage.
Other themes emerged — some communities continue to face daunting challenges related to opioid misuse, the counties that are growing are becoming more diverse (which presents unique needs) and areas are seeking ways to prepare for natural disasters and climate change.
In addition to the needs assessment survey, WVU Extension leaders and county agents are engaging in community conversations through statewide stakeholder meetings. These meetings provide an outlet to collaborate and dig down into the more unique needs of local communities so Extension faculty and staff can tailor educational programming and activities.
Atiles also noted the importance of cross-collaboration between Extension and other WVU academic units and centers, as well as developing strategic partnerships. Breaking down silos and making connections strengthens the work of the University and WVU Extension.
“Our faculty and staff do an extraordinary job bringing the research and knowledge of the University into our West Virginia communities,” Atiles said. “By working collectively across the University, further engaging our stakeholders, prioritizing programs and identifying opportunities for partnerships, we will be able to provide them with additional tools to support them in the work they do, while remaining steadfast in our commitment to the land-grant mission.”
The Future of WVU Extension
WVU Extension’s programs are intentionally varied and diverse to suit and fill needs throughout West Virginia — whether that is a young person taking part in 4-H or Energy Express, a business owner learning about rural tourism opportunities or an individual earning a safety certificate to expand job opportunities — WVU Extension is a direct conduit to these resources through experts who live and work in our communities.
As the front door to WVU (and the only University unit embedded in all 55 counties), WVU Extension faculty and staff connect people to WVU’s research and tools they can use in their own lives and in their hometowns and neighborhoods.
That vision to improve lives and empower people is a common thread. Through partnerships with community, school and state leaders, volunteers, donors and others, WVU Extension is working one-on-one to provide data and information that it hopes will continue to transform small towns and urban areas around the Mountain State.