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Kitsap County Extension: It’s 97 and growing

Renee Overath thumbs through historic extension records. - Leslie Kelly/staff photo
Renee Overath thumbs through historic extension records.
— image credit: Leslie Kelly/staff photo

When Renee Overath began preparing for this year’s celebration of 100 years of extension service in Washington State, she decided to go rummaging through old file cabinets.

Overath is the director of WSU Kitsap County Extension, and although the extension has only been around for 97 years in Kitsap County, she’s getting in on the anniversary anyway.

What she found amazed her.

“Look at this,” she said holding a yellowed file folder. “It’s a narrative report form 1939, typewritten on onion paper.”

The report told about the meetings that the home economist for the extension service had held, teaching canning techniques to farm wives and others. It was signed “Elizabeth Porter, Extension Service Home Economist agent.”

It’s a history not a lot of people know, Overath willingly admits.

“Unless you’re a Master Gardener, or have been involved with 4-H, the term extension service is a bit foreign to you,” she said. “For many years, it was thought that the extension programs were for only those who lived in rural America. But that’s not so today. Today we do about everything.”

In Kitsap County, that includes 4-H Youth Development, Master Gardeners, programs in water stewardship, small farms, noxious weeds, rain gardens, food sense and strengthening families.

The extension service came about in 1914 when the U.S. Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, which provided funding for research and programs to get scientific knowledge out to farmers and communities.

“Much of the emphasis was on 4-H,” said Overath. “It was thought that if you teach children, they would take home what they learned and educate their parents as well.”

As Overath searched for historic artifacts of the early days, she came across photos of 4-H students on the deck of the USS Nevada in Bremerton in October 1923. She’s found photos of extension representatives teaching cooking classes and of the directors of the Olalla Berry Growers Association from the early 1920s.

“It’s just a real reminder of how our programs have always helped, but how they have changed with the times,” she said.

One example of that is, in the early days, many folks would come to the extension office to purchase pamphlets for a quarter on how to plant specific crops, or how to keep foods from rotting.

“There was a booklet for everything,” she said. “Now it’s all online.”

She said many programs now reflect environmental concerns.

“Extension has always been about living in a way that keeps the planet healthy,” she said. “But today’s programs are directed at teaching how to be good stewards of our local creeks and watersheds. We’ve really put a focus on keeping the environment healthy.”

Overath said for the past 97 years, there’s been a strong partnership with Kitsap County and Washington State University, and the federal government to engage people, organizations and communities in the advancement of knowledge of economic well-being and quality of life.

“It’s been done by fostering learning and the application of research,” she said.

When the Smith-Lever Act was passed, it allowed a network of educators who were university-based to go out into communities and spread knowledge and research to families and communities as they went about their lives.

Like then, a large part of that is the 4-H program. According to Shannon Harkness, 4-H coordinator in Kitsap County, more than 600 kids ages 5 to 19 participate in 4-H. There are about 300 adult volunteers that make the programs happen, too.

“We do everything from robotics to goats,” Harkness said. “A lot of people think we’re just about agriculture. But we’re no longer just plows, cows and sows.”

The focus today is to teach healthy living skills to youth, she said. Sometimes that means learning about animals and the farm culture. Other times it may mean learning about vocations and occupations.

There’s no set number of hours for participants or volunteers, she said, noting that some give hundreds of hours per year.

“It’s like anything, you get out of it what you put in it,” she said.

The club year runs from October to August, with the culminating event being the county fair year August. It is then when many 4-H youth show their projects, animals and talents to the community.

“If you want to see Kitsap 4-H in action, come to the Kitsap County Fair,” she said.

There are 59 clubs throughout the county and if there’s a topic that isn’t covered and there’s enough interest, they’ll create a club to address it, she said. They are always in need of adult club leaders and volunteers.

“We have some volunteers who’ve been with us a few years, and some who’ve been with us 20 years or more,” she said. “What we’re aiming for are relationships with caring adults. We’ve learned that that’s the foundation of future success in our youth. It creates positive youth development.”

And, just incase anyone asks, she added, the four Hs are head, heart, hands and health.

Overath is still looking for Kitsap extension history. If you have a story for her, old photographs or reports, call her at 360-337-7170, or email roverath@wsu.edu.

If you’re interested in volunteering for 4-H programs, call Abby Brandt at 360-337-7162, or email abrandt@co.kitsap.wa.us.

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