AUGUSTA — As part of the Cooperative Extension Service, Family and Consumer Sciences agents help individuals and families develop important life skills to better care for themselves, their homes and their finances. For Leigh Ann Bullington, Family and Consumer Sciences educator for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, her role is an opportunity to mentor new FCS agents and help them become resources to their communities.

Bullington began her role as educator in October 2021 after working as an FCS agent in Cross County from 2011 to 2015, and then as extension staff chair of Woodruff County. She said being an FCS agent was her “life calling.”

“I don’t think there’s any better job in the whole wide world,” she said.

Community engagement is key

Bullington grew up in Marianna, Arkansas. She graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1982 with a Bachelor of Science in Home Economics. After graduation, she married her husband, a former farmer in Jackson County. When their son started kindergarten in 1988, she took a role as what was then called a “home economist” in the Woodruff County Extension office, where she worked until 1995. After a 16-year break when “life took me off in a different direction,” Bullington returned to extension in 2011 as a Family and Consumer Sciences agent in Cross County.

In her role as FCS educator, Bullington uses her many years of experience as an agent to help new agents navigate the challenges and learning curves of the job. She said “knowing and listening to your community” is the most important lesson she learned as an agent.

“You cannot come in with some attitude that you think you know better than everybody else,” Bullington said. “It’s about listening to that community and caring about that community. It doesn’t matter how much you think you understand. Until people know that you care, you could talk all you want, but if you’re not present with them and showing them that you care, I don’t think that you’re near as effective in the job.”

While working as an agent in Woodruff County, Bullington helped establish The Warehouse, a community facility and food distribution center supported by Woodruff County Extension, ARcare and the City of McCrory.

“I have lived in this community for over 30 years, and when people told me they thought we needed some type of food pantry in the McCrory area, I was thinking, ‘We’ve got other food pantries around, and I’m not really sure we need that,’” Bullington said. “I was really wrong. There was a huge need. The first month that it opened, people walked three miles in July to come get some food. Then they turned around and walked three miles back.”

As an agent, Bullington concentrated on nutrition programming, and she used her knowledge to lead meal-planning workshops, grocery store tours and other food education efforts for patrons of The Warehouse.

“Those lessons really made a difference,” she said. “It’s about the impact and knowing how helpful you can be to people and the difference you can make in their lives.”

In addition to nutrition education, FCS agents provide programming in health and wellness, family and consumer economics, marriage, parenting and family life, leadership and more.

“What FCS agents do is important,” Bullington said. “You hear people talking all the time about learning to ‘adult.’ Life skills, or ‘life 101.’ That’s who we are. That’s what we do. We teach life skills and try to impact people’s lives.”

Laura Hendrix, extension Family and Consumer Sciences department head, said Bullington’s time as an agent and passion for the profession make her a unique fit for the educator role.

“Leigh Ann has a solid foundation in Family and Consumer Sciences subject matter as well as years of practical experience as a county FCS agent,” Hendrix said. “We have needed someone in this role for years, and Leigh Ann fits the bill perfectly. She is an outstanding mentor and role model for extension professionals.”

Learning curves ahead

Bullington said she helps new FCS agents “learn to be what an agent needs to be,” which includes helping them develop their understanding of the Cooperative Extension Service as a whole.

“I need you to give your extension elevator speech,” she said. “I need you to tell people who you are, who you work for, what our organization does, and what you do. I want them to know the whole gamut of extension, and I want them to be able to talk about it.”

Bullington said it’s critical for new agents to engage with their communities in a variety of ways, including meeting with local committees or clubs, getting involved with the area’s schools and connecting with local businesses and financial institutions, as well as working with local elected officials.

In addition to helping agents bring more visibility to their programming, Bullington also advises them about “managing life.”

“Being a county agent can be so overwhelming, and sometimes you’ve got to take a step back and say, ‘I need time to take care of myself,’ and if you have a family, to take care of family life,” Bullington said. “Because you can literally work almost 24/7. It’s important that you take some time for yourself so that you don’t get burnt out, because that can happen, and I’ve seen it happen.”

Opportunities for education

Bullington said one of the most common questions agents receive is about food preservation, which became even more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said agents receive on-the-job training about canning and other methods of food preservation. When asked by their constituents about proper canning methods, Bullington said this is an opportunity for agents to “educate them that all of this is science and the responses we give are research-based in science.”

“That can be a challenge to explain to people sometimes,” she said. “They’ve been canning for years and years. ‘This is how Granny did it, we always did it this way,’ they’ll say. Well, it’s important to help them understand that sciences change, plants have changed, so the way that you preserve them sometimes needs to change, too.”

Bullington currently serves as president of the Arkansas affiliate of the National Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences. She said she hopes to work with her peers to generate more interest in FCS agent careers and spread the word about the positive impact the job can have, both on agents and their constituents.

“What I love the most is the people,” Bullington said. “I have always felt so blessed, to work for extension. Not only do I get to go to work, but I get paid for doing these things that I love to do.”

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