WVU Extension Agent –
4-H Youth Development, McDowell County
In the southern part of the state, deep in the former coal fields that comprise McDowell County, there is, at times, the feeling of a loss of community. Businesses have left. Schools have consolidated. But among these hills there’s also a sense of progress and of hope, and that’s where West Virginia University Extension Service’s Donald Reed enters the picture.
Reed serves as the 4-H Youth Development agent for the 21,000 residents of McDowell County. He says that meeting their needs is what keeps him on his toes and makes him excited to go to work each day.
“As an Extension agent, your job is to meet the needs of the community and those needs change each day,” he said. “Each day is different and you never know what to expect.”
One thing he can count on is that there’s plenty of work to be done in the area of youth-development.
“When you live in an area where 46 percent of children live in homes without a biological parent, 4-H programs provide a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose and a place for safe exploration.”
Through 4-H programs, kids can explore everything from science and technology to camping. But Reed says it’s their exploration of social and life skills that has the biggest impact.
“4-H allows a kid to be a kid,” he said. “There are no labels here. You’re not the ‘poor kid,’ or the kid whose parent is in jail; you’re just a kid. There are no cliques; everyone belongs and is welcome.”
Reed is no stranger to WVU Extension Service. He worked with the University for a year in 2007 before leaving to serve as a regional coordinator for the West Virginia Tobacco Control Coalition. He then returned to WVU in 2012.
“No matter where you go in the world, you want to have a sense of belonging and purpose,” Reed said. “In McDowell we may be faced with a lot of problems but there’s also so much progress. Every day it encourages me to witness this place become better and better.”
It’s through programs like iRespect, a cyber-bullying prevention curriculum, that Reed gets to see the near immediate impact of his work.
“The iRespect program isn’t a one-time presentation that I give and then hope the teens listened to; these are month-long programs result in a positive shift in the school’s climate,” he said.
“The ‘ah-ha!’ moment happens when the ‘bullying’ teens view the situation from the other person’s perspective. They see the impact that this behavior has on a person’s life. They see their responsibility to themselves and the other youths to set a positive example.”
Setting a good example isn’t just part of Reed’s job; it’s something he aspires to outside of work.
In a county where only 6 percent of the population holds a bachelor’s degree, Reed defies the odds. He holds not only a bachelor’s degree from Concord University, but has three master’s degrees from Mountain State University. He is working towards a fourth master’s in history from American Public University System.
Reed continues to remain active with the Southern Coalfields Tobacco Prevention Coalition Network. He is a certified tobacco treatment specialist and was a national finalist for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Health Leader award in 2012.
He serves as on the McDowell County HOPE Coalition which is dedicated to creating and maintaining safe, healthy and drug-free communities.
“If I could grant McDowell one wish, it would be to remove substance addiction,” Reed said. “Data shows that when youth get involved in programs like 4-H, they’re more likely to make positive, healthy choices. It can reduce the burden of substance abuse on the community by providing safe alternatives for at-risk youth.”
He thinks that increasing youth-development programs is one way to help achieve the goal.
“My dream is to see 4-H in every school and every coal camp. As we’re losing more of our smaller schools, 4-H can provide a sense of community to those coal camps.”
To make this work, Reed says he’ll need the continued support of his community leaders and volunteers, but he knows he can depend on the people of McDowell to step up to the challenge.
“Working in Extension, you go home every evening knowing that you’ve made a difference; you may have helped a child, or a family, or even the community,” he said. “I know every day that I’ve made a difference in McDowell, and sometimes in the state. It’s so rewarding.”