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Reflections on 36 Years of Extension Work

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Gretchen May, retired from Extension Service

While much has changed since Gretchen May first started coming to work in the courthouse in Greenfield for the Franklin County Extension Service in 1977, a lot has stayed the same. While the geography and the subject areas of May’s work have changed over the years, her overall goals and style of work have remained consistent. “My work has always been centered on responding to people’s needs. We learned what was needed and then went out and helped people. With newspaper columns and radio shows, newsletters, workshops, and more, we brought information on how to respond to family issues to people in whatever way we could.”

For 36 years, May has taken pride in providing unbiased, accurate, non-commercial information, based on the needs of the people in the Commonwealth. To do her work, she has had to be resourceful and self-motivated, taking initiative and listening to people’s needs. A lot of the work has involved collaboration building – cooperating with other organizations and groups to accomplish mutual goals.

When she started work as an Extension Home Economist, May and her colleagues taught people in Franklin County how to use newly-available microwave ovens, answered questions about stain removal and food preservation, and wrote booklets about making homemade baby food. May’s areas of expertise were textiles, sewing, and child development. In the 1980s, as part of a statewide Extension effort, May helped people develop safe and legal home-based businesses, including catering, family daycare, sewing, housecleaning, and running bed and breakfasts. In the late 1980s and 1990s, May and her colleagues worked with the state Department of Transitional Assistance to offer workshops to adults transitioning off welfare, with topics such as: budgeting, managing stress, resume-writing and parenting while working. When Extension’s 4-H and Family Life programs were combined, May’s job became Extension Educator in 4-H Youth Development. As part of her Extension job since 2005, May has served as the Mass. 4-H Military Liaison working across the Commonwealth to coordinate, network, and facilitate programs and resources in support of military children, youth, and families, often in partnership with other groups.

In the beginning, May’s work with textiles and sewing began when she was a student at UMass Amherst with a job working in the fabric department of a local department store. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UMass and worked with textiles in several positions before starting her career with what was then called the Massachusetts Cooperative Extension Service.

Today, May continues to work part-time as State Coordinator of Operation Military Kids (OMK) despite having formally retired from her full-time Extension position last year. OMK connects children ages 5-18 with educational, recreational, and social activities before, during, and after the deployment of a loved one. May and her team provide workshops to communities, school systems, child care programs, and military families on military culture, the deployment cycle, effects on children, and resources available to ameliorate those effects. OMK has also held several summer camps for military children. Those camps included typical camp activities as well as specific activities designed to help those children feel supported during their loved one’s deployment and reintegration. May estimates there are about 20,000 Massachusetts children living in military families. 

In the 1970s, May responded to calls about preserving food and how to clean ink-stained pants. In the teens of the twenty-first century, May gets calls to help military families sort out issues with schools. Through the years, May has been called upon to constantly update her skills and knowledge. Recently, she commented, “Then and now, I draw upon my network of resources across the Commonwealth and the U.S. and use many ways to get the message across. It is all part of Extension’s mission, working with families to help them improve their lives.”

For information about 4-H, visit http://ag.umass.edu/mass4h. For information about Operation Military Kids, visit http://ourmilitarykids.org/.  By Mary McClintock, M.Ed. ’89