By Rebekah Hall
U of A System Division of Agriculture
LITTLE ROCK — A new Cooperative Extension Service project is seeking to improve the health of rural counties by recruiting local volunteers, who will receive training and deliver extension health programming to their communities.
Arkansas ranks 41st out of 50 states for access to clinical preventive care services, making it difficult for Arkansans – especially in rural communities – to access health care screenings and other services that monitor well-being and anticipate problems. The Extension Health Ambassadors project will work with these communities to identify and find solutions to their health problems.
The training program is a partnership between the Cooperative Extension Service’s Community, Professional and Economic Development department and the Family and Consumer Sciences department. The program will equip community volunteers with the health education and teaching skills necessary to lead extension-based health programming in targeted rural counties.
Bryan Mader, extension assistant professor and health specialist, said that by providing this training for volunteers to share with their communities, extension health programming can reach more Arkansans.
“The primary goal of the Extension Health Ambassadors project is to amplify the reach of county Family and Consumer Sciences agents in delivering health programs to a larger audience than the agent is able to do by themselves,” Mader said.
The new program is similar to a previous extension project, Extension Wellness Ambassadors. That project took place from 2013-2014 and used a community-based recruitment model to train volunteers to deliver extension health programs. It recruited 60 volunteers who contributed 5,600 hours of volunteer time and led 434 health education sessions.
The primary difference between programs is the collaboration between the CPED and FCS departments. CPED will play an important role in the project by using an asset-based community development strategy, which Mader said “works with and within a community to identify its strengths – such as people and resources – and uses a person-centered approach to form solutions to community issues.”
This strategy will allow project leaders, agents and volunteers to identify community health issues and work together to address challenges related to the “chronic disease burden in Arkansas and the health disparities between urban and rural populations,” Mader said.
Hunter Goodman, assistant professor of Community, Professional and Economic Development for the Division of Agriculture, said the asset-based community development strategy is also designed to help county extension agents in their efforts to strengthen and improve the communities they serve, including by “building local leadership capacity for engagement on aspects of quality of life and community vitality.”
“At its core, asset-based community development underscores what’s vibrant in the community, centers the community at the heart of local decision making, activates individual participation, strengthens community leadership and emphasizes local relationships,” Goodman said.
The project recently received funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Rural Health and Safety Education grant program, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Six Arkansas counties — Clark, Cleburne, Hempstead, Phillips, Pope and Mississippi — were selected to participate in the project for the two-year project period. Project activities will begin on Sept. 1, 2022, and end on Aug. 31, 2024. Mader said the project will begin with an initial three communities that will “work with the project team to navigate through the community engagement, recruitment, training and delivery components.”
Mader said he is optimistic about the interest among potential volunteers for the project. Arkansas has one of the highest levels of volunteerism in the country, with 30 percent of Arkansas residents reporting having volunteered within the last year in 2017, according to Aspire Arkansas.
“This means there is a rich pool of community members who are interested in helping make their communities better,” Mader said.
Mader said extension’s goal for the Extension Health Ambassadors program is to recruit and train 30 volunteers from six counties over two years.
“Success for this program would result in extension working alongside community members to address their identified, or felt, health needs and working collaboratively with the community to create viable solutions to their health issues,” he said.
As the USDA defines 55 of Arkansas’ 75 counties as rural, Mader said a long-term goal of the program would be to find additional funding to expand its impact to additional counties.
To learn more about extension’s Community, Professional and Economic Development unit, visit the CPED website. To learn more about Family and Consumer Sciences, visit the FCS website or contact your county extension office.
To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact your local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.uada.edu. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @AR_Extension. To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: https://aaes.uada.edu. Follow on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit https://uada.edu/. Follow us on Twitter at @AgInArk.