Gwenda Adkins’ extension agent duties aren’t restricted to just her native Elliott County these days.

They’re not even restricted to the United States.

Adkins, who’s taught consumer and life skills here for 27 years, recently took the University of Kentucky’s Cooperative Extension Service mission overseas — to Serbia.

“I learned so much, and we did so much, it’s hard to tell you,” she said. “There was just a connection.”

Serbia, an eastern European country recovering from years of dictatorship and strife, is trying to rebuild its economy and culture, and is now beginning to look toward tourism and agritourism, and toward their “local” assets much like eastern Kentucky in today’s post-tobacco economy.

A veterinarian is trying to rebuild his business by rebuilding the native animal stock, because war decimated the countryside. He’s also starting a bed-and-breakfast business.

There are developers and preservationists eying many natural wonders around the heavily mountained country, Adkins said. One farmer she met raises fishing worms, utilizing manure from his cattle and cornstalks from his crops, she said. He then sells the worms, as well as the leftover matter, to greenhouses.

Many people have ideas, and a strong drive to make their lives better, which is where the UK mission came into play, said Adkins, one of several who traveled to the country on outreach trips in March and June.

There, they conducted training workshops for people who might one day become Extension personnel, according to a UK press release.

It was part of a cooperative agreement between the UK College of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, the university said.

“Adkins conducted the workshop along with Mike Reed, director of international programs at the College of Agriculture, and Ron Hustedde, Extension professor in community and leadership development,” the press release said. “She also used her experience in asset-based development to help participants learn to recognize and build upon their strengths, instead of getting bogged down in their weaknesses.”

For example, the trainers outlined a scenario of a company with three people happy and 30 not happy, and the Serbians asked why are the 30 unhappy, Adkins said.

“It was like an eye-opener for them when they found out they don’t have to look at everything that is wrong,” she said. “They can ask, ‘Why are the three happy, and how can I build on that.’”

At trainings, they looked at those assets instead of liabilities, the economy, world trade, people partnerships, Adkins said.

“The whole thing is to try to get Serbia back where it’s ... again a dynamic economy, prior to Milosevic and the bombings,” she said. “This group of people are trying to build their economy back.”

One of the major examples is the Sar Planina mountains, a pristine area, Adkins explained.

One organization wanted to open it up for development and one wanted to make it a preserve, and they had not talked to each other, she said.

“But they were at the meetings and started talking and created a plan of what part could be and should be preserved and what part would be for trails and what part would be open for development,” she said. “They looked at their assets and worked together and created a team.

“I just feel like I went over there and talked to people, helped them.”

That’s the reason UK asked her to go, Adkins said.

“When we started doing tourism in Elliott County, we were pretty much at the same place as Serbia, trying to figure out what do and where to go,” she said. “They wanted me to go and tell where we are in Elliott County in asset mapping and not focusing on what the rest of the world thinks about us but what can we think of ourselves to make our situation better.

“I got to tell the story of Elliott County and it was really neat.”

Also in Serbia, Adkins and the extension officials got to see historic towns, old Roman ruins, majestic mountains and meet people one-on-one in their homes, learn about how they still use oxen, learn about another culture.

“It was so much like going back in time, like when I was a little girl,” she said. “And people are so welcoming and trusting.”

They go back in December for a final bit of training, and to leave materials so Serb officials can “train the trainers,” and keep spreading the extension mission, Adkins said.

“It has been such a rewarding experience because just to feel you have friends on another side of world, and to have impacted someone’s life ... just touched me.”

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