Missouri University Extension hosts meetings to learn community needs

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Events help university system determine future programming

Sometimes, people need to have face-to-face conversations to personally connect and better understand each other to find solutions.

The University of Missouri Extension aimed to do just that when it hosted multiple "community conversations" sessions to collect input from Missourians about needed, meaningful educational programs, to help guide the development of future educational programming.

Jay Chism, southwest regional director for the Extension, said the university system made significant outreach efforts to invite diverse audience groups to the meetings as a means to learn what specific issues and challenges families, individuals, businesses and communities were facing in today's social and economical climate so they could learn how Extension programming could best serve them in coming years.

"The meetings were also a great way for people to connect to a vision and to understand that the Extension is about making a difference in peoples' lives," Chism said.

And, the main avenue to make that difference is by providing relevant and responsive educational solutions to the community.

"The meetings were part of a charge by our new Vice Chancellor of Extension and Engagement Dr. Marshall Stewart," Chism said. "He requested a needs assessment, one part of which was a series of community conversations across the state where we asked people what are the top four to six issues that impact communities and their ability to flourish and thrive? We also had a group of people looking at demographics and data sets that may drive some of our programming, i.e. nutritional and health needs health needs."

The conversational-style breakfast meetings took place in 39 locations across the state, with four in Neosho, Ozark, Branson and West Plains. The Neosho-based meeting covered Barry, McDonald, Newton and Jasper counties.

A third-party review was also requested by Stewart.

"We have someone come in from an outside organization and review our program to determine, what are we doing well, what are we not doing that we could be doing, etc.," Chism said.

At the Neosho meeting, attendees came up with the following input and priorities for Barry and area counties:

• Poverty, affordable housing and food security

• Access to education

• Agricultural training and literacy

• Vocation and life skills training

About 30 attendees came to the Neosho session, which included a mix of city and county officials, school administrators and other agencies.

"At the top of the list were poverty, affordable housing and food security as issues people felt needed to be addressed in next 3-5 years," Chism said.

While the data from meetings still needs to be collected and processed, one potential solution to food concerns, Chism said, could be to get more people involved in the food system and help make them aware of resources that exist.

To meet affordable housing concerns, Chism said the Extension could potentially have a housing specialist work with a community to develop solutions. One such possibility could include encouraging residents to renovate older homes that may be available, and facilitate, through local governments, a waiver on taxes for a few years as an incentive, verses letting the homes deteriorate.

Some of the best ideas, Chism said, come from the people who live in the community themselves, which is why the Extension reached out to have personal meetings with the community members who live and work in them.

The university's next steps will be to evaluate the massive amount of data collected.

"We're still in the data collections stage," Chism said. "We hope to have preliminary reports by the end of May, then go through the data, and by December, have a plan of action in place that we could start implementing. It's nice to know what people are concerned about, so we can have a plan to work toward."

Whether bettering lives by facilitating change with related agencies, or direct programming, the Extension will continue its goals to improve lives by providing continual education.

"That's what we do at Extension," Chism said. Extension will pick out suggestions [from the meetings] that may help guide our programming as we move into the future, along with information we can use when working with other agencies that may benefit from having that information."

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