Dr. Wanda Sykes, southeast district Extension director, and Dr. Richard Liles, director of Extension’s Personal and Organizational Development System, based in N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, designed the training to encourage participants from across the district to consider the similarities between packing a parachute and developing Extension programming. Their first day of training last spring involved the tedious task of learning to pack a parachute.
“When I first met Wanda Sykes, I thought she was the kind of person who, when she said ‘jump,’ you said ‘how high?’ I just never imagined it would be 34 feet,” said Ruth Ann Christian, 4-H agent from Lenoir County.
Since spring, the group of 20 has been meeting monthly to look for new ways to approach programming. On Aug. 16, they were treated to a tour of Fort Bragg, which ended with the opportunity to jump from a training tower of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Though the experience was purely voluntary, nearly all the group members attending that day decided to take the plunge, some more than once. One by one, they donned jump equipment, with the help of Fort Bragg troops, and climbed four flights of stairs to the jumping platform.
At the top, their mock parachutes were tethered to cables, similar to a zipline. In their own time, participants jumped from a platform and felt the snap of their weight as tethers caught them, simulating the feeling of a parachute opening. Each person then slid down the cables, approximately 75 yards, where troops helped pull everyone to the ground again.
“It was fun!” said Stacy Morgen, 4-H agent in Craven County. “The worst part was walking up the stairs.”
“I had to close my eyes to jump, but as soon as I did it, I was O.K.,” said Sharon Rushing, family and consumer education agent in Onslow County.
Mark Turano, area specialized agent for aquaculture in Brunswick County, was the first to jump, “volunteered,” he said, by Sykes. “I thought I’d be a little more nervous when I got up there, but Wanda didn’t give me much chance to get nervous.”
No sooner was he back on the ground than Turano headed back up the tower for his second jump. Several others also took the opportunity for a second turn off the tower.
Christian, who has worked in Lenoir County for a year, had decided not to jump. But as she watched other colleagues jump, she changed her mind.
“At first, I just watched. It didn’t look like that much fun, and I didn’t feel a need to accomplish that task,” Christian said. “But when those who were more hesitant did it, I thought I would regret it if I didn’t try.”
Why 34 feet? The training officer for the group said 34 feet is the height where fear instinctively kicks in, but the fear doesn’t get worse at greater heights. Troops who learn to jump from the tower often prefer jumping from an airplane, he said.
And how is packing a parachute like Extension programming? Class members came up with a rather extensive list. A few of those are: both require continuous training; both require beginning with the end in mind; both include an element of risk; both require willingness to acknowledge mistakes and correct them; both require training, careful planning and execution and proper tools.
Christian said she enjoyed the Myers-Briggs testing that group members did as part of the training, which she described as an “eye-popping” experience. As a relatively new Extension employee, she appreciated the opportunity to get to know others within the organization.
During the Fort Bragg experience, group members called out their support, cheering and counting down as each person approached the jump platform. Their shared experiences have brought the group together, Sykes said.
“It has been interesting watching the dynamics of the group. They are sharing ideas and information freely and serving as mentors to each other as they learn about planning, designing, implementing and evaluating Extension programs,” she said.
The Extension training isn’t over, and some class members are hoping for one more chance to jump, this time from a plane. Several members of the group said they were ready for the challenge.