Extension coordinator seeks to educate, improve lives

Since 2008 Katernia Cole-Coffey has served Franklin County as the County Extension Coordinator, as part of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Her role requires her to wear many hats, and she accepts them all in her goal of improving the lives of the people in Franklin County.

“Coming to Franklin County was one of the best decisions I have ever made,” she said.

Before coming to Franklin County, Cole-Coffey worked with 4-H and Nutrition Education Programs with Extension. Those areas of education still hold an important place in her heart. She was a member of 4-H as a child, and her mother and other family members encouraged her to pursue a lifestyle she was passionate about.

“The influences of my family and former Extension agents helped shape my career,” she said.

A native of Lauderdale County, Cole-Coffey grew up on the family farm in Killen.

“My sister Pat and I had a structured and strict upbringing,” Cole-Coffey said. “We had to do things right and well. Mother would often tell us not to buy the cheapest but buy good quality items. Our mother taught us there are people who might not look like you but always be kind and show respect.”

As a retired educator, Cole-Coffey said her mother was also “a strong advocate of education.”  “My mother was very much like her mother, Grandmother Estella; she was thrifty and saved her money so her children could attend college,” Cole-Coffey said. “My mother knew that it was important that my sister and I attend college, and we did what was expected.”

Cole-Coffey graduated from Lexington High School, where she was the only African American in her graduating class. She continued her education, graduating from The University of North Alabama with a bachelor’s degree in Human Environmental Sciences and a minor in marketing, followed by a master’s degree in management, from the University of Phoenix. “I am also a member of the Muscle Shoals Area Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority,” she added.

Cole-Coffey explained the Extension’s goal is to educate all of the people of Alabama and provide them with opportunities and education to better their lives. When applying that to Franklin County, she said she has realized one of the community’s specific needs is how to better reach the Hispanic community.

“I work very hard trying to provide educational programming to the Hispanic community through Extension,” she said.

One of the ways she does that is by utilizing the help of Shirley Jimenez, who acts as a translator and breaks the language barrier.

Providing broadband internet access to all of the citizens of Franklin County, including the outermost rural communities, is another challenge Cole-Coffey sees and hopes to see addressed soon. She serves on the broadband taskforce designated to tackle the problem because it falls under the community and workforce development sector of Extension.

“A lot of people just think that Extension deals with agriculture, but it’s much more than that,” she said.

Another topic Cole-Coffey said she is passionate about seeing addressed in Franklin County is mental illness and domestic violence and abuse, which falls under the family and child development sector of Extension.

“It’s a deep topic that needs to be addressed in the community,” she said.

These issues and more are part of what Cole-Coffey looks at when she considers the measurable outcomes she wants.

“Educating the public, giving them knowledge and opportunities are my measurable outcomes. I want to make sure I’m reaching everyone,” she said.

Reaching everyone in the county is no easy task. She has seen and made many changes over the years, and even though she knows not everyone agrees with her decisions, she said she makes them for the good of the county and Extension.

“Decisions are made not on how well you are liked but on your performance,” she said.

The Cooperative Extension System was founded over 100 years ago and includes 120 institutions that have different types of funding from the federal government, Cole-Coffey explained. “It is basically a network of people in every county across the United States that is responsible for spreading research-based science and innovation to families, communities and farmers,” she added. “We share information about food systems, production, family nutrition, solutions for obesity and chronic disease, community prosperity, starting small businesses, protecting and managing natural resources, extreme climate and weather change responses and more.

When it comes to the people of Franklin County, “I work with all agents and specialists, giving the citizens knowledge through research-based information, enabling them to improve their lives and economic well-being,” Cole-Coffey explained. “There are 20 agents and staff members who work along with me to improve the lives of the citizens of Franklin County.”

One of the biggest changes Cole-Coffey has seen over the years is “how far women have come in the positions that we now hold.” She explained that originally Extension Coordinators were predominantly male, but so much has changed since that time. Being not only a woman but an African American woman Extension Coordinator is a sign of the progressing times, which Cole-Coffey said she is happy to witness and be a part of.

“So much progress has been made, but there is still more to go,” she added.

Cole-Coffy acknowledged that working with Extension is not for everyone, but she said she is a people person who thoroughly enjoys her job, no matter how many hats she has piled on because of it.

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