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New Extension educators ready to serve

Rhonda Friend, left, and Heather Caldwell are the new Fayette County Purdue Extension educators.

By DARRELL SMITH - dsmith@newsexaminer.com

Two new, local faces will greet those who enter the Purdue Extension office on the lower level of the Fayette County Courthouse.

Heather Caldwell and Rhonda Friend began their duties Tuesday and are busy setting up their offices, being trained and working with people who come into the office.

Caldwell already has had to identify a weed.

She will spend half her time on 4-H and half on agriculture and natural resources . Friend is half-time 4-H educator and half-time health and human sciences educator.

Both are new as Extension employees but have experience with the office. Caldwell was a 10-year 4-H member and a 4-H leader for four years. Friend has been a 4-H mom and Junior Leader leader. 

Caldwell graduated from Connersville High School in 1995 and earned a degree in animal agribusiness from Purdue. She worked at Grove Veterinary Clinic and for the past 17 years at Cargill Animal Nutrition in Lewisburg, Ohio.

Friend graduated CHS in 1978. She worked in factories until 1999 then went to college at age 50, earning a bachelor’s and then master’s degree in social work from IUPUI.

“It was so exciting to go back to college,” she said. “I was a smart kid in high school but I did what what culturally my family wanted me to do. My family did not value education; they valued hard work and job security so they wanted me to go work in a factory, so I did. I went to college the first day with my daughter’s Winnie the Pooh backpack and a kitty cat pencil case.”

For 16 years, she has worked at Centerstone in mental health and addiction.

“I’m excited to start a new focus,” Friend said. “My thought is what Frederick Douglass said, ‘It is easier to build boys and girls than to rebuild broken men.’ That is true so I will spend the last leg of my career trying to build healthy boys and girls and I think that will help Fayette County.”

Fayette County has many amazing strengths and the job will allow her to have a positive impact on the community through 4-H and through networking with others who also love the county, she said.

Caldwell agreed, saying, “There are so many people already working to help our community and we want to be a part of that.” 

She said the job at Cargill had been great but the goal of working in Fayette County and helping the community had always been there.

The Caldwell name is not new to the local Extension office. Her father, David S. Caldwell, worked as the 4-H educator many years before retiring in 2006.

“That was a neat draw as well to be able to continue the family tradition,” she said. “I know what I’m getting into. Dad loved his job and that was a good example for his kids to enjoy his job and helping other people, two big values he taught us through this job.”

The Fayette County Extension office has not had any educators on staff for several months. Both of the previous educators resigned last spring.

“Our goal for the next year is to integrate ourselves into the community and bring the trust and confidence back to everyone with Extension,” Caldwell said.

The Fayette County Free Fair is an important part of what the office does. For this past fair, program assistants Jill Kennedy and Kirstin King, along with Community Wellness Coordinator Becky Marvel, and Extension educators for other counties worked together with volunteers. Caldwell said many people with a lot of history with 4-H stepped up.

“I sure hope we don’t mess it up next year,” she said.

To those interested in 4-H, she reminds them sign up is in October.

“I think a lot of people see Extension as a 4-H program but Extension offers so much more,” Caldwell pointed out. “They offer nutrition services, services for farmers and the ag community. We have so many services the community probably doesn’t realize. We can work with service organizations and service groups.”