WESLACO — The Texas Agricultural Extension Service is preparing to share the lessons it has learned in reaching out to the state’s booming Hispanic population.
By way of the Internet, workshops, and training manuals, Extension Service personnel are compiling information they’ve acquired from Una Vida Mejor, a highly successful, five-year Hispanic outreach program funded by the Kellogg Foundation.
“Over the past few years we’ve developed a wealth of information on curriculums, strategies, and Hispanic focus groups,” said Joan Gillespie, project leader of the $1.4 million Una Vida Mejor (UVM) program.
“This is a large knowledge base that must be shared with many other agencies since so many others are now being funded to do the same type of work,” she said.
Based at the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Weslaco, the program doggedly stuck to its original dual goals of helping families and communities improve the quality of their lives, while helping the Extension Service become more inclusive of Hispanic programming and employment.
The means of achieving those goals, however, evolved as needs and circumstances evolved.
“That’s the way the program was designed,” Gillespie said. “We wanted to provide education in areas that the clients themselves identified as important to them, yet be flexible enough to change if their needs changed or if external forces came into play.”
A dozen program assistants and 10 summer interns worked in targeted neighborhoods in five pilot counties across the state providing direct education to help clients help themselves.
Clients attended educational classes on a wide variety of programs ranging from money management and self-sufficiency to nutrition and community involvement.
“We’ve helped thousands of Hispanics across the state help themselves by attending these series of classes and by becoming involved in community volunteer activities. And in the process, we’ve acquired skills that will help us teach other professionals how to work with Hispanic audiences,” Gillespie said.
Developing leadership skills among Hispanics, Gillespie says, translates into improved communities and highly productive citizens.
“A person who can organize a large wedding or quinceanera (daughter’s coming-out celebration), or a person who manages to get five family members fed, clothed and off to school and work every day has tremendous leadership skills. Once those skills are recognized and focused, a person gains confidence and is empowered to learn new skills or head up a community improvement project or seek out employment where those skills are needed,” she said.
To date, UVM has reached 46,000 Hispanics in each of its first four years of existence and graduated over 4,000 clients from its series of classes.
As UVM program funds expire, many of its efforts have been absorbed by various units of Texas Agricultural Extension Service.
“Another legacy of this program,” Gillespie said, “is that most of the program’s Hispanic employees have found positions in similar new programs within the Extension Service, and others have been hired in county-funded positions to run youth development or volunteer management programs.”
UVM has also played a major role in obtaining grants totalling $4.3 million for other similar programs in the state, according to Gillespie.
Frequently updated information being compiled by UVM is available on the Internet at http://agweb.tamu.edu/weslaco/uvm.
Una Vida Mejor is one of many programs whose lessons are being adapted and supported across the statewide county Extension network. The network, however, needs additional funding if it is going to continue to have the capacity to deliver educational programs to citizens across Texas.
“After a decade of funding constraints, the Extension Service needs additional monies to ensure county-level staffing is adequate,” said Dr. Zerle Carpenter, director of the Extension Service. “We are making every effort to work with the state legislature and county governments to keep this system in place.”