Author Archives: Julie Crichton

Virginia Cooperative Extension forms key partnerships to tackle the state’s opioid epidemic

Imagine awakening to the news that a jetliner has crashed, killing all 115 men, women, and children aboard.

As shocking as the magnitude of such loss would be, this is equivalent to the number of Americans who die from opioid overdose every day.

As if the deaths of approximately 42,000 people each year weren’t sobering enough, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total “economic burden” of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion annually, including the costs of health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.

“The rates of death as a result of opioid overdose are climbing, and they are over 50 percent greater in rural Southwest Virginia than for the state,” said Kathy Hosig, director for the Virginia Tech Center for Public Health Practice and Research and a specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension, the outreach program for the state’s two land-grant universities: Virginia Tech and Virginia State University. “There is a clear role for Virginia Tech and Virginia Cooperative Extension to provide safety education and training at the community level to help stop the cycle of abuse.”

In June, Virginia Cooperative Extension was awarded a $1.28 million grant for collaborative opioid work through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The grant was one of only six conferred nationally for addressing community needs.

“By having Virginia Tech and Virginia State University partner on the project, we were able to double the funding,” said Crystal Tyler-Mackey, an Extension specialist in community viability, and co-project director, along with VSU’s Maurice Smith, a 4-H Extension specialist with the university.

Awarded by the USDA-NIFA Children, Youth, and Families At-Risk program, the five-year grant will support health education initiatives spearheaded by Extension aimed at preventing opioid abuse among vulnerable communities in Virginia. This work is a continuation of a $321,638 NIFA Rural Health and Safety Education grant awarded last fall to Virginia Cooperative Extension. Together, the efforts are reaching six counties: Grayson, Henry/Martinsville, Prince George, Orange, Sussex, and Henrico.

Maurice Smith, Crystal Tyler-Mackey, Bonita Williams, and Kathy Hosig

From left: Maurice Smith, Crystal Tyler-Mackey, Bonita Williams, and Kathy Hosig. Williams serves as national program leader with the NIFA division of youth and 4-H.

“Southwest Virginia is especially vulnerable. We have communities that are suffering. They are struggling to find homes for children whose parents are impacted,” said Tyler-Mackey. “And across Virginia, social service agencies and schools are overwhelmed. Employers are having trouble hiring people who can pass drug tests. We felt compelled to find a way as community-level educators to do something to address the issue.”

The grants will enable Extension to deliver educational programming to prevent the abuse and misuse of opioids and other illicit substances to those most at risk and to host meetings and events that bring together people and organizations concerned about opioid misuse for collaborative discussion, learning, and planning.

The NIFA funding will be targeted to two distinct audiences: adult hospital patients and their families in clinical settings, and middle-school adolescents through evidence-based educational programs.

The goal in targeting hospital patients is to make them aware of the dangers associated with use of opioid pain medications and to provide access to support should they or a family member experience problems related to opioid use. This intervention will take the form of one-on-one conversations with patients and their loved ones through the High Risk Patient Education Program.

“There are different risks with opioids than with over-the-counter medications because opioids are so highly addictive,” said Tyler-Mackey. “Patients do not always know that what they are taking for pain management is an opioid. So, many don’t know the risk associated with its use. The education of medical patients will be on proper use of the medications and red flags to look for, such as taking medication sooner, or more often than prescribed.”

Curriculum for this program is being developed by the Virginia Rural Health Association for delivery to patients as they are waiting to see health care providers in their offices and will also be available on the Virginia Cooperative Extension and Virginia Rural Health Association websites.

The second goal for the NIFA grants is to provide prevention education for adolescents at a vulnerable stage in their development – middle school – in order to provide children and their families with the skills and support required to make healthy decisions about drugs. This will take shape through a program called PROmoting School-community-university Partnerships to Enhance Resilience (PROSPER), an evidence-based model developed by Iowa State and Pennsylvania State universities to prevent alcohol and drug abuse in youth.

Through this model, which connects university-based prevention researchers with Virginia Cooperative Extension and the public school system, community teams are convened to oversee the implementation of family and school-based interventions. The family-based intervention program is called Strengthening Families 10-14, and the program offered to youth in middle schools is called Botvin Life Skills Training.

All three PROSPER programs include classroom sessions addressing social and psychological factors leading to drug experimentation through the use of games, discussions, role-playing, worksheets, online content, posters, and videos. Endorsed by the Surgeon General in a 2016 report, the program has produced successful results. According to one randomized study, youth participating in PROSPER had 21 percent less prescription opioid misuse seven years after the program.

“PROSPER communities have wonderful outcomes for youth,” said Tyler-Mackey, who is working to educate a cadre of certified trainers throughout the state. “We have a longer-term strategy to start with a few communities and expand. Other states have had success with PROSPER, so we want to continue with that.”

“Given the importance of this effort and the need for partnerships to address the opioid epidemic at all levels, we’re also working to coordinate efforts across the state and region by building relationships with other universities, state agencies, hospitals, schools, and institutions who have a role to play in the opioid epidemic,” said Hosig.

In May, Hosig and other experts from Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Virginia Tech Center for Public Health Practice and Research, and the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance brought together 71 higher education representatives from 23 colleges and universities across the region, along with community representatives from health departments, community services boards, and law enforcement for a day of conversations on how to jointly combat the opioid epidemic. Suggested next steps from the workshop include developing a common research agenda, formulating a regional approach, and integrating information on opioid misuse and abuse into the curricula at institutions of higher learning.

The workshop and NIFA awards would not have been possible without Virginia Cooperative Extension leaders Ed Jones, director; Cathy Sutphin, associate director of youth, families, and health; Karen Vines, an Extension specialist and assistant professor; and, Hosig, as well as colleagues at Virginia Tech, VSU, and the Virginia Rural Health Association. Jones’ leadership was instrumental in helping to secure NIFA funding – funding that stands to help save many lives.

Virginia Cooperative Extension is also partnering with West Virginia Cooperative Extension to develop steps to address the epidemic.

“The good news is that the opioid crisis in this country is being attacked on all sides as people and agencies on federal, state, and local levels come together to fight this problem,” said Tyler-Mackey.

– Written by Amy Painter

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Virginia Master Naturalist chapter publishes guide to the state’s poisonous plants

pokeweek

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is one of the poisonous plants highlighted in the new guidebook. Photo by Brenda Clements Jones, Old Rag Chapter, Virginia Master Naturalists.

Just in time for the summer months when more people venture into the outdoors — and come into contact with poison ivy and other plants that are best avoided — there is a new reference guide to some of Virginia’s poisonous plants.

The Socrates Project: Poisonous Plants in Virginia is a collaborative effort between the Virginia Master Naturalist Program and Virginia Cooperative Extension.

“This project is the first of its kind in a couple of ways. It’s the first publication of its kind focused on poisonous plants in Virginia, and it was a totally volunteer-driven effort,” said Michelle Prysby, statewide coordinator of the Virginia Master Naturalist Program and Extension associate for Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.

The core group of volunteers who produced the guide was led by Alfred Goossens of the Old Rag Master Naturalists chapter, which serves Culpeper, Fauquier, Greene, Madison, Orange, and Rappahannock counties. He saw the need for the project owing to the high incidence of contacts with poisonous plants, many of which land people in emergency rooms, a fact he confirmed with the director of the Blue Ridge Poison Center.

Recent reports that the noxious giant hogweed had been spotted in Clarke County, Virginia, which was confirmed by Virginia Tech researchers, has raised additional interest in poisonous plants. Goossens had already planned to include giant hogweed in the publication, as he was familiar with it having grown up in Holland.

Once Goossens enlisted the support of his chapter members, the project took about two years to complete. Volunteers settled on the format, wrote the data sheets for the individual plants, and contributed photographs. There was also a peer-review process to ensure the accuracy of the material.

In addition to Prysby’s support, Senior Extension Agent Adam Downing wrote one of the data sheets and leveraged his connections to help with the publication. “This project will benefit many Virginians by informing them of the realistic hazards with our key poisonous plants,” he said. “We don’t want to cause alarm, but do want people to be able to enjoy the outdoors by being better informed of a few plants to notice and treat appropriately.”

In order to ensure that people remain aware of which plants to watch for, Goossens is also working with Master Naturalist chapters across the state on a second edition of the guide that will include additional poisonous species.

“Now it’s a Virginia project. It changed from just the Piedmont to all of Virginia because people all over the state need this info,” Goossens said.

“The Socrates Project: Poisonous Plants in Virginia,” publication number CNRE-13NP, is available as a downloadable pdf file at the Virginia Cooperative Extension website (ext.vt.edu). For more information on the project, contact the team at socratesormn@gmail.com.

– Written by Krista Timney

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Virginia Tech scientists who identified dangerous Giant Hogweed in Clarke County hopeful that it will be contained

Corey Childs and Giant Hogweed

Corey Childs, an Extension agent housed in Warren County in the northern Shenandoah Valley, visited the Clarke County site Monday to collect Giant Hogweed samples for the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech researchers who helped identify the dangerous Giant Hogweed plants in Clarke County, Virginia, want residents to stay on the lookout for the plant with toxic sap that can cause severe burns — but also stressed that the weeds are believed to have been planted intentionally decades ago and haven’t spread in the years since.

“It’s a dangerous plant but I’m not overly concerned about it. This seems to be an isolated incident,” said Virginia Tech’s Michael Flessner, an assistant professor and extension weed science specialist.

Giant Hogweed is a Tier 1 Noxious Weed in Virginia and should be reported to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Prior to last week it had not been confirmed in the state. Flessner worked with Jordan Metzgar, curator of the Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech, and Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent Mark Sutphin to identify the plant last week.

Property owners who think they spot Giant Hogweed should not panic, Metzgar said. He stressed that Giant Hogweed, with its white, umbrella-shaped-flower clusters, looks very similar in appearance to cow parsnip, a plant that’s widespread and native to Virginia. Giant Hogweed can grow to be up to 14 feet tall while cow parsnip is generally shorter.

Cow parsnip can also cause a mild skin rash but isn’t nearly as dangerous as Giant Hogweed.

Anyone who suspects they have found Giant Hogweed should take photos, check online to compare the plant to photos, and then contact a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent or the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

No one should mow or use a weed trimmer to remove either Giant Hogweed or cow parsnip without wearing proper covering and safety gear, Flessner said.

Giant Hogweed is found in a number of other states, primarily to the north of Virginia.

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Red salamander named official salamander of Virginia, thanks to 4-H group

red salamander

Did you know Virginia has more than 40 emblems that represent the state’s cultural heritage and natural resources, including the beloved northern cardinal, big-eared bat, tiger swallowtail butterfly, and nelsonite, the official rock of Virginia.

Recently, another state emblem was signed into law – the red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber). The species is now Virginia’s official state salamander. The striking crimson amphibian was selected because of its beautiful coloration, widespread distribution throughout the commonwealth, and its ability to raise awareness about the conservation of a species whose reclusive habits make it difficult for many people to appreciate them.

Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, sponsored the bill at the urging of young conservationists affiliated with Salamander Savers, an ecological-minded 4-H group in the city whose members range in age from 8 to 18. The youth, who also received support from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Herpetological Society, and many naturalists and teachers, have been working for two years to raise awareness about salamanders.

“I am excited to introduce these bright young activists to the civic process,” Filler-Corn told WHSV.com news. “It is my hope that this is just the beginning of their engagement with government and that they will continue their advocacy for years to come.”

4-H is the youth development education program of Virginia Cooperative Extension. Through 4-H, young people are encouraged to participate in a variety of activities that emphasize 4-H’s “learning by doing” philosophy of youth development. Administered through the state’s land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, 4-H is the first experience many young people have with higher education.

The Salamander Savers experienced many challenges along the way. Last year, the 4-H’ers visited the capitol in Richmond more than seven times to meet with legislators. Each trip took about six hours. The students even drew pictures of the salamander on cards, delivering them to lawmakers as part of their lobbying effort.

The bill passed 96-1 in the House of Delegates and 39-1 by the Senate.

This 4-H group was founded in response to the dredge of a Fairfax lake in 2015. Three children were inspired to save the salamanders from the surrounding lake, appealing to local government officials for help. The 4-H members attended meetings, advocated in front of adults, and fought to save the lake’s vernal pools.

“When our lake was dredged, my kids asked me questions that I wasn’t able to answer. As a home-schooling mother, I was determined to try to find answers to their questions,” said Anna Kim, the 4-H club’s adult leader, and mother of Jonah Kim, 14, the club’s president.

In addition, Kim said that her son wanted to give a voice to the animals who could not speak for themselves.

“We chose the red salamander because it lives throughout Virginia,” said the younger Kim. “We thought it was easily recognizable and would be interesting to people who have never seen a salamander.”

The amphibian is a member of the Plethodontidae family, a group of lungless salamanders that breathe through their skin. Because of their unique respiration, their environment needs to be free of toxins or they will absorb the pollutants through their skin. By bringing attention to the red salamander, Salamander Savers members hope to raise awareness about the 56 species that reside in Virginia.

—  Written by Amy Painter

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Delbert O’Meara inducted to Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Hall of Fame

Alan Grant, Delbert O'Meara, and Dixie Watts Dalton

Delbert O’Meara (center) was inducted to the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Hall of Fame at the annual college alumni awards ceremony. He is pictured with Alan Grant, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Dixie Watts Dalton, president of the college’s alumni organization.

Delbert O’Meara, of Walters, Virginia, a 1962 graduate of animal science and a 1967 graduate of agricultural education, was inducted to the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Hall of Fame on April 20, 2018, at the annual college alumni awards ceremony.

O’Meara was born a year before the beginning of World War II and was raised on a farm in Loudoun County. As a youngster, he was an active 4-H member. Throughout his formative years, he enjoyed working with livestock. This led him to become the Sears and Roebuck Pig Chair and a state 4-H poultry winner. O’Meara also helped to establish the Prince William County Fair, the Fredericksburg County Fair, and the State Fair of Virginia. It was through these accomplishments that his early leadership skills were recognized, and he earned a trip to attend the National 4-H Congress in Chicago.

The young man’s 4-H experiences helped him develop numerous programs that are vital aspects of youth development today. These include the State 4-H Fair, the creation of 4-H centers across the commonwealth, and the State 4-H Horse Project. In addition, he was instrumental in establishing partnerships with the Virginia land-use taxation program and agricultural commodity groups, which serve as the backbone of Virginia’s agriculture. Following his youthful passion for 4-H livestock judging teams, O’Meara has served as a member of the National 4-H Livestock Contest for more than 50 years, and continues to attend the event to this day.

This alumnus has not only shown himself to be dedicated to the youth of the state and to 4-H, but also to his fellow and future Extension agents. He began his career in Extension in 1962 with the Nansemond County Office and went on to work in the Southeast District Office in a variety of positions until his early retirement in 1991. Throughout his career in Extension, O’Meara has been a mentor, working with both the Virginia and National County Agents Association on many programs for staff development. In conjunction with his work as a mentor in Virginia, he helped provide professional development for staff and new agents, starting the Agricultural and Extension Agent Leadership Fund. Delbert also brought Virginia Cooperative Extension to the national stage when he helped to plan and host the National Extension Meeting in Virginia in 1976.

In addition to his contributions of time and effort, O’Meara has made a number of philanthropic gifts to Virginia Tech and is a Distinguished Benefactor in Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim Society.  

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