Donna Pearson McClish wants to start a farmers market in Wichita.
She recently went to the Extension Center at 21st and Ridge Road to ask the director, Bev Dunning, how she might go about it.
Dunning normally wouldn’t have been directly involved in such a matter; in fact, an extension agent for horticulture sat in on the meeting. But Dunning wanted to make time for Pearson McClish.
“Addie Pearson is her mother,” Dunning said, and Addie used to round up students for Dunning when she was a clothing and textiles agent for the Extension, back in the 1980s.
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“In those days, I taught clothing to kids on the porch of an old farmhouse on 37th North of off Hillside,” Dunning remembers, “and Addie would pick up children in her van off the streets in northeast Wichita.
“She wanted those kids to sew. She found the fabric. We taught it with a little dog running between us on the porch in the hot sun. Addie’s son would teach the boys a Bible story under the shade tree.”
From farmers markets to sewing — and from 4-H to Medicare help for senior citizens — Dunning’s involvement in the Extension has spanned 50 years and shows the gamut of how that unusual government entity benefits the public.
Dunning’s meeting with Pearson McClish was one of her final official contributions to the Extension: Dunning retired Friday. A public reception Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Extension Center will honor her.
“She has always worked so quietly,” one of Dunning’s extension agents, horticulturist Bob Neier, said of Dunning’s strong support of her staff. “She always said she wanted us to shine.”
Neier and 4-H agent Jodi Besthorn will split Dunning’s duties now; a replacement is expected to be hired by July 1.
Dunning turned 75 on Feb. 13, so it seemed appropriate to retire now, she said, with the Extension Center in good shape — and a 2015 budget that can belong to someone else.
While many people in Wichita probably know the Extension Center from the farmers market there and such garden events as Tomato Day and Herb Day, the whole concept of Extension — now officially called K-State Research and Extension — can be fuzzy.
It started in the 1800s as an extension of the teaching of the land-grant universities, of which Kansas State University was the nation’s first. The Extension covers four “pillars”: 4-H youth development, family and consumer sciences, horticulture/agriculture and community development.
It partners with other people and agencies to extend its reach even further and help more people.
“We’re the teachers of the public sector,” Dunning said. For someone teaching child development or parenting in the community, for example, “We are their teacher.”
Dunning grew up on a farm in Melvern, south of Topeka, a 4-Her who “loved Extension from the time I was probably 10 years old. In fact, I decided in the seventh grade that I wanted to be an extension agent” because she so admired the home economics agent in her county.
Dunning attended K-State and in 1964 became assistant 4-H agent in Sedgwick County — the first female 4-H agent in Kansas. In 1970 she switched to family and consumer sciences with a clothing specialty, teaching thousands of people to sew over two and a half decades.
But her job as agent went beyond needle and thread. The executive board in the early 1980s decided that agents should focus on some aspect of family life as well.
At the time, Dunning was taking care of her parents, dealing with Medicare claims. She saw other people in the county who had the same issues as her parents, so she decided to focus on senior citizens, training volunteers to help them file their Medicare claims.
Her efforts evolved into a grant from the Area Agency on Aging and eventually expanded to the hiring of a dedicated extension agent who runs Senior Health Insurance Counseling for Kansas — the SHICK program.
Last year that agent and 57 volunteers helped more than 5,700 people with their Medicare, saving the seniors more than $1 million in health-care costs, Dunning said.
“And that money recycles back into the county, so it’s economic development,” she said.
Of all the things she’s worked on with Extension, “I kind of fell in love with that,” Dunning said of her work with the senior citizens.
Changes over the years
Most of all, Dunning said she has loved working with people, and that continued when she became the director of Extension in Sedgwick County in 1996.
“I work with the staff and find resources to help them with their programs,” she said. “That’s not always easy, working with these budgets.”
Indeed, Dunning has lately had to go to bat for the Extension before the County Commission and defend its programs against the threat of budget cuts. Sixty-nine percent of the Extension’s budget comes from the county; 31 percent from the state and federal governments.
There’s a perception that the Extension duplicates programs that others in the community are offering, Dunning said, but she scoffs at that. If Wichita State University is offering a program on horticulture therapy, for example, where was the master gardener teaching it trained if not at the Extension?
The budget cuts have come anyway. Today if you walk into the building at 21st and Ridge Road, you will not find a sewing machine.
“We don’t teach sewing anymore,” Dunning said. “We shut that down last year because of budget cuts. We had to lay off two agents.
“That broke my heart since that was one of the areas that I loved so much.”
Dunning has seen many other changes in Extension over the years.
“We often demonstrated how to cook, sew and decorate,” she said. “Now we teach how to parent, how to budget, how to care for your parent.”
It still teaches cooking, but also emphasizes nutrition and food safety.
And for youth, 4-H has grown to include 4-H Outreach that goes out to such places as Park Elementary to serve Spanish-speaking and low-income children and to McConnell Air Force Base.
And kids can be involved in more than cooking and cattle — now it can be electrical work, woodworking, rocketry, “anything they want to do. It’s for the city as well as the country,” Dunning said.
“Many more kids are involved, and it’s great. It helps with their development.”
The Extension is valued for unbiased information, such as when it advises gardeners about such questions as which pesticides or grass-seed blends are effective.
“Extension ... makes a difference in people’s lives and improves their quality of life,” Dunning said. “Our education is research-based. We don’t have a product to sell.”
People “tell us we’re the best-kept secret.”