“For us, it’s personal” says the highly accurate testament of the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, whose county educators live and work in the counties and communities they serve; and Custer County Extension Educator Radonna Sawatzky is proof of that.
Sawatzky – who was honored as a 2018 Distinguished Educator recipient by OCES on Jan. 10 – has worked on behalf of Oklahoma residents for nearly 29 years in the Extension program areas of family and consumer sciences and 4-H youth development. Things got very personal in 1996 when her then 3-year-old daughter got a foodborne illness.
“She was in the hospital for 10 days and was very sick,” Sawatzky said. “As a family and consumer sciences educator and one who had taught numerous food safety programs I was in disbelief. My daughter had gotten salmonella from watermelon.”
In 1999, Sawatzky and Washita County FCS Educator Kristy Spalding were working on research for a grant to fund needed county educational programs. The State of the State’s Health Report showed an alarming statistic: At that time, 36 counties in Oklahoma were above the state average for reported foodborne illnesses.
“Custer County’s rate was 20 percent higher than the state average and 49 percent higher than the U.S. rate,” Sawatzky said. “This really alarmed us. Kristy and I are Oklahoma ServeSafe Food Protection Manager Certified by the Oklahoma Restaurant Association.”
Memories of 1996 and what foodborne illness can mean to worried families as well as those suffering directly, Sawatzky worked with Spalding to create one of the most popular and practical food safety programs ever seen in the state.
“The Oklahoma Pork Council became our partner and funded a $60,000 four-year grant,” Sawatzky said. “Our program combined food safety with hands-on cooking skills.”
Participation expanded well beyond their counties, with their program taking place across the state; 61 counties were involved at one point. The Four-C’s concepts of “clean, chill, cook and cross contamination” became the watchwords of many, and to good effect. Results indicated foodborne illness rates dropped in several counties after the Extension cooking schools.
Identifying a problem and packaging potential research-based solutions into educational programs that help Oklahomans solve issues and concerns of importance to them, their families and their communities is par for the course where Sawatzky is concerned, though one is much more likely to hear such from others than Sawatzky herself.
“Radonna has been the driving force behind Custer County’s Co-Parenting through Divorce program, which evolved into the Co-Parenting for Resiliency Class,” said Judge Jill C. Weedon of the Second Judicial District of Oklahoma in a letter of support. “Custer County has a unique divorce docket focusing on reducing conflict and narrowing the issues as early as possible.”
Weedon explained how Sawatzky’s Extension co-parenting program dovetails with the court’s judicial goals of keeping a family functioning and communicating even through divorce, adding that parents often resolve their own custody issues after attending the program. Sawatzky even works with an interpreter to provide the program in Spanish.
“One only has to glance at Radonna’s resume to realize she sets the gold standard for all other Extension employees to emulate,” said Gloria King, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension family and consumer sciences district specialist.
Sawatzky began her career with OSU Cooperative Extension in 1989, serving as an Extension 4-H educator in Dewey and Major counties until 1991. She then moved to the Washita County Extension Office, where she served as 4-H educator until 1993. Sawatzky then moved again to the Custer County Extension Office, serving as an Extension educator for its family and consumer sciences and 4-H youth development programs for more than 24 years.
In Custer County alone Sawatzky has formed cooperating partnerships with the Weatherford and Clinton chambers of commerce, Weatherford and Clinton public school systems, Thomas Fay Custer school system, Arapaho-Butler school system, Head Start schools, Weatherford Pioneer Center, Custer County Health Department, Clinton Integris Hospital, Weatherford Regional Hospital, Southwestern Oklahoma State University and county libraries, diabetes and heart associations, home health agencies, daycares and local shelters, among others.
Sawatzky has participated in two federal civil rights audits – in 1998 and 2005 – with only minor adjustments to relevant programs. Her Co-Parenting trough Resilience Programs have provided needed support to nearly 3,000 participants.
Judge Weedon wrote that she has “known Radonna Sawatzky for many years. In fact, I remember competing against her in a 4-H speech contest in elementary school. She was extraordinary then, and she still is.”
Sawatzky’s affiliation with OCES has been lifelong, beginning as a 9-year-old 4-H’er. She went on to become the State 4-H Citizenship winner and ran for State 4-H office as a high school senior.
“I grew from a shy little girl to a confident young lady who was ready to face the world,” she said. “I had the pleasure of having several 4-H agents, Extension home economists and agricultural educators touch my life. As I started to look for a career, I knew that I wanted to work for OSU Cooperative Extension.”
Today, Sawatzky’s professional affiliations include officer positions with the Oklahoma Extension Association for Family and Consumer Sciences, as well as the National Extension Association for Family and Consumer Sciences. She has served as state president of the Oklahoma Association of Extension 4-H Agents and has been a member of the National Association of Extension 4-H Agents for 27 years.
The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service is one of two state agencies administered by OSU’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources. OCES programs focus on increasing opportunities for agricultural enterprises; natural resources and environmental management; food, nutrition, health and safety education; and youth, family and community development.