In the midst of a pandemic, feelings of loneliness, stress, and isolation can take their toll on mental health. Reaching out to local Kent County residents is at the heart of Michigan State University’s Extension Center (MSUE). District 7 Director Erin Moore says that help is not only available, but resources are more accessible than ever to residents in Kent, Ottawa, Allegan, and Barry counties.
Since the pandemic started in March, the MSU Extension Center has been working hard to continue outreach in their diverse programming. This includes the Product Center, working with entrepreneurs and launching food businesses. Their partnership with MEDC helped hundreds of local businesses gain access to crucial Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) especially in a time when it was hard to come by. The MSUE Veteran Outreach Team has also shifted in order to best reach a population that might not initially lean towards virtual programming.
“We bring resources — academic or educational resources out to the community,” Moore says. “We cover a variety of topics. Our organization is really founded in agriculture, but we also work with health and nutrition — that ranges from how to cook healthy meals and food safety, all the way to mental, social, and emotional health.”
One of their most popular programs is the youth development program, which includes 4H, coding classes, and book clubs — with over 20,000 young people enrolled. This summer Adulting 101 featured lessons many high school students may have missed during their last few months of school. Topics included making a spending plan and how to ace a job interview.
While the MSUE previously held some programming virtually, Moore says their online presence has grown exponentially since transitioning nearly every program to a digital platform. Nearly every resource is available to anyone for free — which is a huge benefit for residents.
“We launched a resource page
with all of our classes, and since we’ve been using Zoom for years, we really didn’t miss a beat in shifting over our educational resources to Zoom … I think within a week, we had most of our classes shifted to an online structure, adapted for that setting.”
Since March, environmentally-friendly gardening education classes have shown a spike in enrollment, as many more people were at home and trying to rely less on grocery stores for nourishment. Another important and popular topic has been their series on mindfulness.
“The pandemic has truly taken a toll on people’s mental health,” Moore says. Their classes, focusing on stressing less, anger management, and managing health through a crisis had over 3,000 participants over the summer. Moore estimates those numbers have more than doubled since that time. Enrollment wasn’t solely from Western Michigan counties either, and included participants from all over the state, and also Wisconsin, Virginia, Ohio, California, Texas, Iraq, and Trinidad.
One of the biggest hurdles in the transition of material to a virtual setting was determining how people can easily access those materials virtually.
“I think the state did a survey of the biggest issues, and the biggest one was broadband connection in the rural areas, and the second was access to a computer or a device,” Moore says. For their website design class, they’ve partnered with Grand Rapids Public Schools and Wyoming Public Schools, who loaned out a number of laptops.
The center also saw an uptick in their use of the Product Center, which provides counseling to businesses or business ideas in the food industry. Many people took their newfound time off, or after being laid off, finally brainstormed opening up their own businesses.
“We offer that first-level advice you need,” Moore says of the program. “If you have an idea, we’re that first step of how do you get it from that idea stage to getting it on the shelves at a grocery store.”
The first three months of the pandemic, the program witnessed 12 new business owners in Kent County. 58% were women-owned businesses and 33% were minority-owned businesses.
Moore’s most personal program was one she started herself, in partnership with Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to provide crucial PPE to Michigan businesses. With MEDC’s program, Pure Michigan Business Connect, the process for businesses to find manufacturers who were making PPE was a lengthy one. MSUE stepped in, and called businesses themselves to secure PPE.
“We’ve now reached out to 3,000 businesses in the state,” Moore says of the outreach, which was extended to include schools in the fall.
“In the beginning, most businesses wanted someone to talk to — an actual person to connect with. They were so frustrated and just wanted to talk to a human, and not click on buttons on websites. I think that’s where we provided the best customer service.”
One of the biggest challenges MSUE has felt since the pandemic has been ensuring that no specific audience is left out from available resources. With programs like SNAP Outreach to Veterans, traditional food pantry visits had to be adapted. “There are some audiences who are reluctant to use virtual programming, or virtual programming just doesn’t work with those audiences. Those are some of the hurdles we continue to work through,” Moore says.
Although the team and the entire nation is feeling a sense of Zoom overload and the burnout from constantly staring at screens versus face-to-face socialization/education, the MSUE is looking at the bright side of things.
“There’s been a lot of sadness with this pandemic, but if there’s some silver lining — it’s that geographic barriers have kind of fallen off. You can really engage with people in any part of the state, or country, and that’s been a really cool thing to see.”
Images taken pre-COVID-19 and courtesy MSU Extension Center.