UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — What stops people from leading and implementing local projects? How can we encourage volunteers to take action to address climate change? These questions gripped a team of Penn State Extension educators and Master Gardeners, who set out to find answers.
They started by securing a Science-to-Practice grant from Extension and the College of Agricultural Sciences Office for Research and Graduate Education. These grants award up to $10,000 a year to integrated research and extension teams to address pressing, complex challenges.
“Our premise was that people don’t lead projects because they don’t feel they have leadership skills, and they don’t know how to get the money,” said Linda Falcone, an entrepreneurship and economic and community development extension educator based in Wyoming County.
To test this theory, Suzanna Windon, an assistant professor of youth and adult leadership in the college, surveyed more than a thousand Master Gardener and Master Watershed Steward volunteers on their volunteer habits. The survey revealed that volunteers indeed perceived weaknesses in educating others, grant-writing, finding project funds and communicating with local government. These results drove the training topics for a pilot leadership program.
Twenty-six volunteers from four counties enrolled in the pilot. Led by educators from Extension's Leadership and Community Vitality Team, participants learned about leadership styles, team development, working with local leaders and conflict management. What resonated most with participants was the grant-writing class, where they learned about measuring impact and preparing a proposal.
Participants then worked in county-based teams to write grant proposals for local projects addressing environmental issues. They outlined their projects, explained potential project impacts and prepared a budget. After evaluating and comparing the proposals, the extension educators awarded funds from the Science-to-Practice grant to each team.
“That’s what makes this program unique,” Falcone said. “It took the risk out of writing a grant and not being funded, because we already did that for them [with the Science-to-Practice grant].”
Vying for a piece of the grant money created healthy competition among the participants. The extension team provided feedback on the proposals and projects; they wanted participants to practice and improve their grant-writing skills.
Fostering independence was an overarching goal, Falcone explained. The skills gained from the leadership program will empower participants to seek funds and initiate community projects on their own.
The county-based teams partnered with local leaders to carry out their projects. One team cleaned an overgrown garden at a state park and planted pollinator-friendly plants to rejuvenate the garden. Another team created a rain garden around a pavilion at a new municipal riverfront park. The rain garden captures overflow water cascading down the hills — with the goal of reducing water pollution in the Susquehanna River.
A third team conducted soil-health testing experiments and offered training and soil test kits to community members. Introducing home gardeners to these techniques could raise the nutrient level of their soil and reduce the use of synthetic fertilizer.
The fourth team partnered with a community volunteer group 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 about 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 survey following the program, more than half of the participants said they are 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 engaging and informative. As a Master Gardener coordinator, Wright observed that Master Gardener volunteers complete basic training with much knowledge to share. This course helped translate that knowledge into community outreach.
Efforts are underway to expand the program statewide. A grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection will fund a youth pilot program in 2022. Geared toward youth aged 13-18, the program will occur in five locations and consist of two Master Watershed Steward projects and three Master Gardener projects.
“We need the next generation to not only know about environmental issues, but also take action to do something about it,” Falcone said.
Falcone and the team hope to earn a second grant from the DEP for another adult program.
Lori Voll-Wallace, a Master Gardener area coordinator based in Susquehanna County, emphasized an important point about upcoming trainings: “This is open to anybody, not just Master Gardeners or Master Watershed Stewards,” she said. “We hope to motivate people to volunteer and make a difference in their local communities.”