Avengers assemble! One of the great things about Marvel’s Avengers is how seemingly disparate superheroes can be called together on a moment’s notice to combine their strengths and save the world, then just as quickly disperse and use their unique powers to carry out missions around the globe and even across the galaxy. While it rarely goes easily, the Avengers are unbeatable because they can work effectively together and apart, as a team and individually.
We saw something of that Avengers action August 26-29, when Extension agents from all over the state assembled at the Extension Professionals Association of Florida Annual Conference in Ft. Myers. EPAF is an opportunity for faculty and staff from UF/IFAS and FAMU Extension, many of whom spend most of the year spread out through 67 Florida counties, to come together for four days of networking, sharing ideas and putting our individual experience together for a common goal.
This year’s conference kicked off in heroic fashion Monday night with the EPAF Olympics. This is the first time we’ve hosted Olympic games at the conference; they were organized by Osceola County’s Gabi Murza and other members of the EPAF Wellness Committee as a way to get our blood pumping with some friendly competition between the regional Extension districts and administration. The fiercely contested events included nerve-wracking Giant Jenga, laser-focused Ladder Golf and cutthroat Corn Hole. The Hempsters of the Southeast District swept gold medals in all three events this year, but I’m confident the Admin Team will be back next year to avenge our loss.
Tuesday and Wednesday were devoted to networking and sharing the collected experience of hundreds of Extension professionals from two public universities, 12 research and education centers, and 67 county offices. Through posters and presentations, we shared success stories, pro-tips and lessons learned from Extension programming in communities throughout the state. We learned about leveraging Florida cattlewomen to increase the public’s agriculture knowledge, training SCUBA divers to monitor the health of our coral reefs, working with 4-H youth who are putting their problem-solving skills to help feral cats get spayed and neutered, teaching first-time homebuyers how to apply Integrated Pest Management in their new homes, and many other innovative programs.
These sessions were followed by DSA Awards Tuesday night, and Wednesday night by the Deans’ Dinner and Silent Auction, which this year took in a total of $5,510. We also took time to celebrate Friends of Extension like Imogene Yarborough, and to mourn the loss of colleagues Karl Havens, Kristen Poppell.
But while all this was going on, a threat was looming on the horizon. By Wednesday afternoon, Tropical Storm Dorian had become a Category 1 hurricane and was on a projected path to make landfall on Florida’s east coast by Saturday.
By Thursday morning, many of us were following the news anxiously, our bags already packed and ready to go. Senior Vice President Jack Payne started the morning off with a moving tribute to Kristen Poppell and profiles of agents Abbey Tharpe, Jonael Bosques-Mendez, De Broughton, and Marguerite Beckford. Jack was followed by addresses from Associate Dean for Research Sherry Larkin, Dean for CALS Elaine Turner and FAMU Extension director Vonda Richardson. Senior Associate Dean Tom Obreza presented the Extension Professional and Enhancement Awards, which this year, thanks to our sponsors, amounted to more than $72,000 in rewards. As dean for UF/IFAS Extension, I closed out this year’s conference with a presentation that looked at the tremendous amount of change Florida has undergone in the past ten years and the importance of putting our best foot forward as we prepare to develop a new Extension Roadmap to guide our work into the next decade.
We managed to wrap everything up by 10:30. As soon as the Beatles’ “The End” played on the PA, people were heading out to prepare for Dorian. By the Friday before labor day weekend, we were back at work, mobilizing to staff county emergency operations centers (EOCs), preparing Extension offices and RECs to withstand hurricane conditions, distributing agricultural disaster damage assessment forms, and informing the public about how to stay safe and sound during the storm. Within a very short period of time, the whole Extension network had disaster preparations in place and our lines of communication were open as we monitored the track of the storm. We have demonstrated once again our ability to react quickly and effectively in the event of emergency.
Dorian ultimately took a northern path and just glanced Florida’s coast, but not before devastating the Bahamas with 185 mph winds for three days. The total destruction of the Abaco Islands is a humanitarian crisis and a stark warning of the danger that any of us could face, not only to our crops and to infrastructure, but to human life. I urge you all to donate to relief efforts approved by the Bahamian Government at http://www.doriansupport.org/. Meanwhile, we will continue to monitor activity in the Atlantic and further develop our plans to prepare for future disasters.
I want to thank Alex Bolques and the entire EPAF leadership who put together a fantastic conference, and all the participants who showed such enthusiasm and professionalism under sometimes stressful conditions. Our ability to share our collected experience and then move out to apply that experience in communities from Pensacola to Homestead is truly inspiring, worthy of any league of superheroes.