Gwenda Johnson 'Extends' Good Works in Elliott County
LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug. 30, 2013) — "There are so many things I like about my job, I don't know where to start."
That is Gwenda Johnson's response during a recent interview when asked to describe the best part of her job. Perhaps that enthusiasm and positive energy is why the Elliott County extension agent for Family and Consumer Sciences still gets such 'a kick' out of the work she has been doing for 34 years and counting.
"To me it's all about the people," Johnson said. "What do they need and want, and what makes them happy and proud."
Johnson's colleagues in the Elliott County Extension office, one of 120 offices which help to comprise the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment's statewide Cooperative Extension Service, include agriculture agent Mary McCarty, 4-H agent Beth Hale, EFNEP (Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program) assistant Rhonda Reynolds, agritourism assistant Gayle Clevenger, and staff assistant Mary Skaggs.
A quarter-century ago, one national survey designated Elliott County as the 'poorest county in the United States.' At that time, the county's extension service was housed in a 700-square-foot metal building located behind the courthouse in Sandy Hook and was staffed by just two people, one of whom was Johnson.
"In the wake of that report, we were given the responsibility of community economic development by the local government," Johnson said. "We reached out to specialists at UK, as well as at the Kentucky Industrial Development Council, the Daniel Boone National Forest, the Kentucky Department of Forestry and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources."
After representatives of these entities came for a week-long visit to Elliott County, it was decided that creating tourism opportunities featuring some of the pristine, natural assets of the area was a good strategy to pursue.
"Then, with input from local citizens, just regular folks who wanted to help, we were able to design, secure funding, and construct the Laurel Gorge Cultural-Heritage Center and Hiking Trail System," Johnson said. "This is probably the greatest accomplishment of my career, yet I was only the facilitator. Again, it's all about the people."
The outdoors and the arts are two of Johnson's true passions.
"I believe anything can be taught using the natural environment and the arts as classrooms with teaching tools. Through developing outdoor programs with youth, I've seen the 'hardest-to-handle' students become top learners," said Johnson. "Through the arts, I've seen special needs students and adults express their feelings and excel."
Working with teachers at local schools, including Lakeside Elementary and Isonville Elementary, Johnson has combined this connection to artistic expression with the learning of math and geography skills, through activities where students learn about the different regions of Kentucky on specially designed walking trails through natural habitat.
"In addition to the educational benefits, these students are also walking and getting healthful exercise," she said.
Promoting exercise and good health are high on Johnson's list of priorities. She
firmly believes that in order to have a healthy community, "You need healthy people, a healthy economy, and a healthy environment."
In addition to the nature trails, Johnson has lobbied elected officials to include walking/biking paths and sidewalks in all new road projects. But that's not all.
"We teach about water quality, hoping people will become good stewards of our natural environment. To help local business owners, we offer workshops on marketing, including creation of brochures, FaceBooking and website design," Johnson added.
"Elliott County is filled with talented people, including many artists and craft makers. So that artists would have a venue to sell their products, we opened the Foothills Artisans' Center," said Johnson.
This energetic mother of two grown children never stops in her pursuit of new knowledge.
"Being directly associated with UK is great," said Johnson. "I am constantly learning from the university's extension specialists, including 4-H, forestry, community development, tourism and more. Tapping into this vast reservoir of expertise has helped me and my colleagues to create and nurture a very unique and diverse program for the people of Elliott County."
Even though Johnson now has a much-improved office (Elliott County Extension headquarters is located on Route 7 about three miles south of Sandy Hook) as compared with the rather primitive space of the early days of her career, you probably have a better chance of meeting her at an event out in the community. In fact, as this article was being written, she was busy coordinating the exhibits and photographing the 4-H livestock show at the annual Elliott County Fair. Next up after that, it's on to the 'Heritage in a Skillet — Elliott County Country Roads Cook-off,' another event originated by Johnson.
No wonder Gwenda Johnson was a finalist for Women Leading Kentucky's 2010 Martha Layne Collins Leadership Award, named for the former Kentucky Governor. She's not slowing down in her in her quest to provide a better environment, economy and home for the people of Elliott County.
MEDIA CONTACT: Carl Nathe, 859-257-3200; firstname.lastname@example.org