UNIVERSITY PARK, PA – What keeps people from leading and implementing local projects? How can we encourage volunteers to take action to fight climate change? These questions seized a team of Penn State Extension educators and master gardeners, who set out to find answers.
They started out by securing a Science to Practice Extension grant from the College of Agricultural Sciences office for research and higher education. These grants provide up to $ 10,000 per year to integrated research and extension teams to address pressing and complex challenges.
“Our premise was that people don’t run projects because they don’t feel like they have leadership skills and they don’t know how to get the money,” said Linda Falcone, a Entrepreneurial, Economic and Community Development Educator based in Wyoming County.
To test this theory, Suzanna Windon, an assistant professor of youth and adult leadership at the college, interviewed more than a thousand master gardeners and master watershed stewards about their volunteering habits. The survey found that the volunteers did indeed perceive weaknesses in educating others, writing grants, raising funds for projects and communicating with local government. These results guided the training topics for a pilot leadership program.
Twenty-six volunteers from four counties signed up for the pilot project. Led by educators from Extension’s Leadership and Community Vitality team, participants learned about leadership styles, team development, working with local leaders and dealing with conflict. What touched participants the most was the grant writing course, where they learned how to measure impact and how to prepare a proposal.
Participants then worked in county-based teams to draft grant proposals for local projects dealing with environmental issues. They described their projects, explained the potential impacts of the project and prepared a budget. After evaluating and comparing the proposals, extension educators allocated Science-to-Practice grant funds to each team.
“That’s what makes this program unique,” Falcone said. “It took the risk of writing a grant and not being funded, because we already did it for them [with the Science-to-Practice grant]. “
Competing for a portion of the grant money created healthy competition among the participants. The extension team provided comments on the proposals and projects; they wanted participants to practice and improve their grant writing skills.
Fostering independence was a primary goal, explained Falcone. The skills acquired through the leadership program will enable participants to fundraise and initiate community projects on their own.
The county-based teams partnered with local leaders to bring their projects to fruition. A team cleaned up an overgrown garden in a state park and planted pollinator-friendly plants to rejuvenate the garden. Another team created a rain garden around a pavilion in a new waterfront municipal park. The rain garden captures the overflow water that rushes down the hills – with the aim of reducing water pollution in the Susquehanna River.
A third team conducted soil health testing experiments and offered training and soil testing kits to community members. Introducing home gardeners to these techniques could increase the nutrient level in their soil and reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers.
The fourth team partnered with a group of community volunteers to educate residents about native plants and distribute plants to low-income homeowners.
Teaching others about environmental issues was crucial, according to Falcone.
“The purpose of Master Gardeners is to educate others on why the environment is so important and how they can help,” she said.
Additionally, the county-based teams gathered letters of recognition from the community and created impact statements to use for future education and publicity.
In a post-program survey, more than half of participants said they were more likely to lead a community project in the future, and 86% said it improved their leadership skills.
Melissa Wright participated in the Soil Health Project in Wyoming County. She found the hands-on learning activities interesting and informative. As the Master Gardeners coordinator, Wright observed that the Master Gardeners volunteers undergo basic training with a lot of knowledge to share. This course helped translate this knowledge into community awareness.
Efforts are underway to expand the program statewide. A grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection will fund a pilot youth program in 2022. Aimed at youth ages 13 to 18, the program will take place in five locations and consist of two Master Watershed Steward projects and three Master Gardener projects.
“We need the next generation to not only be aware of environmental issues, but also to take action to address them,” Falcone said.
Falcone and the team are hoping to secure a second DEP scholarship for another adult program.
Lori Voll-Wallace, Master Gardener Zone Coordinator based in Susquehanna County, highlighted an important point regarding upcoming trainings: “This is open to everyone, not just master gardeners or master stewards of watersheds. She said. “We hope to motivate people to volunteer and make a difference in their local communities. “