PERSPECTIVES Spring 2000: Putting families first is goal of newsletter, workshops
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  College of Agriculture and Life Sciences


Putting families first is goal
of newsletter, workshops

Streamlined, focused and expeditious use of resources to increase the Cooperative Extension Service’s visibility has been the governing motivation for Leah Chester-Davis, marketing and media relations agent, from the moment she began her career with Extension four years ago. That was when, she says, "I noticed a duplication of effort from county to county on the part of agents doing newsletters. And though the information was good, the newsletters were not of the quality they should be considering we represent two universities."

Her response? A consolidated effort, starting with the three counties that were her jurisdiction — Mecklenburg, Gaston and Cabarrus — along with Charlotte metro area neighbor Union County. A call from Durham County Director Cheryl Lloyd added that county to the combined effort. Soon Chester-Davis got together all the family and consumer education agents in the five counties to establish a budget and articles list for an entire year and make assignments. Thus was born Families First, a quarterly newsletter to inform and educate families on issues that affect them and to provide ideas for helping to improve their quality of life.

"Three family and consumer education agents serve as editors on a rotating basis," Chester-Davis explains. "They collect the articles, do some editing and then send them to me. One agent who has taken a leadership role in this each year is Nancy Smith of Gaston County." Chester-Davis edits the overall newsletter and works with the designer on layout.

The newsletter actually is part of an even larger effort to provide households with timely and practical information. In the Charlotte area, seven counties work together to offer family and consumer education programs under the umbrella "Cooperative Extension’s Families First." In addition to the counties already mentioned, these include Cleveland, Lincoln and Rowan.

"It’s important to recognize the role that the family and consumer education agents play in this effort," says Chester-Davis. "It takes time and a lot of work to build teams, and I really appreciate the agents in these seven counties being interested in working together as a region to offer programs. Already, Extension has benefited in many ways, including much more visibility in the Charlotte media market."

Among activities to be offered through the program will be a regional program on raising responsible and healthy children, half-day to day-long sessions that will be preceded and followed with Families First workshops in each of the area counties throughout 2000.

The Families First newsletter is intended to tie in with the educational workshops.

"The numbers of the newsletter that are copied and distributed vary from county to county," says Chester-Davis. "Some counties are in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 2,000 per quarterly issue. I am very pleased, though, that Cabarrus and Mecklenburg counties have recently recognized the importance of distributing this newsletter to a broader audience, and between the two, they will have distributed, by late February, 30,000 copies of the first issue. The total for all five counties is about 35,000.

"Most county centers do not have a postage budget that can handle that volume, so the agents are creative in the way they distribute these newsletters."

One agent, Juli Tipton-Smalley of Mecklenburg County, has arranged for the county courier to deliver several thousand copies to more than 20 library branches in the county. Doris Rogers of Cabarrus County has arranged for copies to be delivered throughout that county. Copies are distributed through the various county departments of social services, health departments, physicians’ offices, day care centers and churches.

Chester-Davis is particularly excited about the latest coup in the distribution network: "We’ve formed a partnership with Hannaford grocery stores this year, and, as part of that partnership, Families First will be available in the seven Hannaford stores in Mecklenburg and Gaston counties," she says. "Hannaford is paying for the costs to provide newsletters in their stores. We’re hoping this partnership will increase the visibility of Extension to an urban audience in the Charlotte area. In addition, Hannaford has provided funding for the Families First regional programs."

Photo by Herman Lankford

Thousands of customers walk through Hannaford each week, notes Chester-Davis, "and, with the newsletter and some educational programs we will be offering at the stores, we believe this will be an innovative way to offer nutrition education programs."

But nutrition is just one among many offerings to be available through the Families First program and that will be reported in the newsletter. "We cover a wide range of topics that are important for family members of all ages, children to retirees," Chester-Davis explains.

"It’s for anyone interested in family issues."

So far, interest is running high. "We’ve had enthusiastic response from our customers," Chester-Davis says. "Personnel in other county departments are excited about receiving the newsletter. When you walk into the offices of the Department of Social Services in Mecklenburg County, and you see how many people we can reach while they’re waiting there, it’s clear that it’s a very worthwhile project."

—Terri Leith

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