Theresa Howard, the UK Extension Agent for Family and Consumer Science, considered her move to Harlan County in 1974 temporary. But 32 years later, she's not only found a home, she's planted roots.
“I came to Harlan County fresh out of college to work with the University of Kentucky,” said the Bristol, Tenn., native. “And at first, I went home every weekend. I couldn't wait to leave. Now, I don't have to leave. I am home.”
The Harlan County Extension Agency once had a slogan, and that was “We grow ideas.”
But ideas haven't been the only thing growing in Harlan County. Because of her work with the University of Kentucky Extension Agency, Howard has seen a growth in herself thorough the years, as well.
“Extension work provides a wonderful service to communities,” she said. “But I've learned and gained just as much as the people we serve. It's rewarding work.”
Howard may not be homegrown, but she's firmly planted her roots, and now she's flourishing.
“She's a great person to work with,” said Howard's co-worker, UK Extension Agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent Jeremy Williams. “Theresa is a hard-working agent, and she's creative, too. All the programs she's started, whether it's scrapbooking, quilting or basket making, are very well done. You can easily tell that she has love for what she does and for the people she does it for.”
Howard has been promoting family financial management, proper nutrition and homemaker activities for a span of three decades, and it has been a blur of cooking demonstrations, craft workshops and community enrichment programming.
Since her first day on the job, she's stayed busy, and that's the way she likes it.
“And that's what I love most about this job,” Howard said. “Each day is never the same. There's a lot of variety in what we do, here. It can be challenging work at times, and it definitely keeps us on our toes, but it can be exciting and fun work, too. If I didn't enjoy what I was doing, I wouldn't have stayed with it for so long.”
Howard is a graduate of East Tennessee State University where she received a degree in home economic education. She knew as early as junior high that she wanted to pursue a career in home economics, but was not able to take any classes in high school. Also, 4-H was not offered.
During her school years, however, Howard worked part time at her father's place of employment - Bristol Tennessee Electrical System. There, she assisted the company's home economist by helping with mail outs along with special programming and demonstrations.
“That's what I wanted to do,” she said. “I wanted to be a home economist, but by the time I graduated from college, companies started phasing out these positions.”
Howard explained that at one time it was popular for companies like Betty Crocker to hire professionals to display their services and products. At her father's company, Howard helped demonstrate and promote the use of home appliances.
After being advised to try extension work with the University of Kentucky, one of the first county's that needed a home economics agent was Harlan. Howard admitted she was hesitant to accept the position at first, but after encouragement from her father, she decided to give it a try.
“Amazed - that's what I was,” Howard said, describing her first trip into Harlan County. “Back then, there wasn't a bypass and there was little development. It was very rural, and I didn't know what I was getting myself into.”
But Howard adapted. She made friends, settled down, watched a county grow, and eventually started a family. Her daughter, Amanda, is now 26, and she has two grandchildren - Ashton and Tristan.
“I love to be called ‘Nana,'” Howard said with a big smile on her face. “What free time I do get, I love spending it with my grandkids. The best thing in the world is to see those little hands reaching out for me.”
Howard stays pretty busy at work, though, and extension volunteer Pat McClung said it was her “above and beyond” dedication that made local extension programming so successful.
“Her heart's in her work,” McClung said. “You can tell that by the many extra hours she puts in to it. She's got a love for her job and a love for helping people. But, besides all that hard work, Theresa is a really nice and down-to-earth type person who uses her talents to help spread joy and self-esteem to a whole bunch of people.”
Howard has been recognized on the state level for her many years of service and her office's excellency in extension programming.
She likes to try new recipes, she's really gotten into scrapbooking, and basket making has become a new interest of hers. But Howard's favorite thing to do is being of service to Harlan County.
“I guess you could say I'm a hard worker,” she said. “I get that from dad (who makes the street light Christmas Decorations for the city of Bristol).”
As for the future, she hopes her life will be more of the same.
“I want to work as long as I'm able and to have plenty of fun with it,” she said. “I want to enjoy my grandbabies, too.”