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Meehan leaves hundreds of volunteers behind

Don Meehan is retiring from WSU Extension in Island County. - Photo by Dan Pedersen
Don Meehan is retiring from WSU Extension in Island County.
— image credit: Photo by Dan Pedersen

If someone got up before dawn today to videotape eelgrass or net baby salmon for research, the trail leads back to Don Meehan.

It’s also true if someone put on a light keeper’s uniform and led visitors around Admiralty Head Lighthouse. Or if they collected micro-climate weather data for local farmers or prepped local 4-H youth to speak confidently to large audiences.

All have two things in common – Don Meehan and no pay. The first of those will go away Aug. 31 when Meehan retires and turns over his Washington State University Extension office to new leadership for the first time in 26 years.

On a warm summer afternoon, sitting in the shade and sipping a fruit Snapple, Meehan reflected on what he called “this mess I have created.”

“We have, I don’t know, 800 volunteers in the office, plus a half-dozen paid coordinators. That’s one percent of the county population. You just have to be in awe of those people and what they give back to the community. It’s really hard for the other county departments to understand what that means,” he said.

He is quick to point out that the real work of inspiring, motivating, guiding and thanking the volunteers falls to the half-dozen paid coordinators on his staff who bring passion and energy to their work.

There is nothing like it in county government. WSU Extension is everyone’s first stop at the county campus for questions ranging from scary spiders to organic eggs, diseased trees, invasive species, shoreline access, dead crows and worm bins. His community programs intrigue the public and attract volunteers like honey.

Blessing

and a burden

“Those volunteers are a huge blessing,” he says. Then he drops the other shoe. “They’re also a burden. In most county departments the work is done by employees who get their reward in a paycheck at the end of the month. With volunteers you don’t have that. They have to get their motivation some other way and the work has to mean something.”

Apparently it does, because Meehan’s hard-charging volunteers include everyone from techies to teachers, farmers, homemakers, grandpas, professors, military retirees and those who just can’t “stop.”

They organize huge community education events such as the Island County 4-H Fair, Sound Waters University, Whidbey Gardening Workshop and Day on the Prairie, serve as one-on-one interpretive naturalists at Rosario Beach, collect sophisticated scientific data and offer trouble-shooting clinics for the public at local farmers’ markets. Many also contributed their expertise to Island County’s best-selling book, Getting to the Water’s Edge.

Meehan made his mark on the Extension system both locally and nationally in the early 1990s when he took it into uncharted waters. By then he had concluded that for a county like this with 212 miles of shoreline, something important was missing from the traditional Extension programs of 4-H, Master Gardeners and Family Living. He created WSU Beach Watchers (www.beachwatchers.wsu.edu), built on the community-service model of WSU Master Gardeners, to bring science and volunteerism to the nearshore. It was a runaway success, training hundreds of citizens, now spreading throughout Puget Sound.

“Our programs have grown to have a heavy emphasis on natural resources protection, as they should, living in such a marvelous place.”

National recognition

For this and other achievements he is being honored nationally this fall as the 2008 western states winner of the “Award of Excellence,” given by the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.

To keep Meehan’s army of volunteers organized and happy, much of his job in recent years has been hustling grants and donations to support the coordinators who coach and encourage those volunteers. “Some counties are much more capable of helping the Extension program because they have greater resources. In Island County, because of our tax base, it has always been a struggle. I have sometimes wondered if the public didn’t care more about dog control than educating 4-H kids, food safety and the natural resource programs we provide that keep the beaches clean, keep our lighthouse open to the public and keep visitors’ dollars flowing.”

And the big educational events Meehan’s office oversees are challenging to plan and carry out on a shoestring. “Every time we have a major event and the house doesn’t come tumbling down I feel this huge relief. Maybe that’s a sign it’s time to retire!”

“We’ve grown through the years and what used to be really simple isn’t simple any more.” Twenty-six years ago it was a sleepy office of several employees and a $44,000 budget. On Aug. 31 he leaves behind an $850,000 budget, many new programs, hundreds of volunteers and triple the staff.

County commissioners are never far from his thoughts. “Sometimes it’s a challenge to work with the county commissioners,” he admits. “As county extension director, one of the good things is that the commissioners are not your boss. They cannot hire or fire you, but they can chase you out of the county. They have that ability and probably know it, because they hold the purse strings to most of your staff and infrastructure. You try to show them great respect and obviously you want them to value educating the community. That ought to be a big part of what they are about as leaders.”

He concedes that being at the hub of a large network of volunteers comes at a price. “This kind of work does have an impact on relationships because you end up going to a lot of night meetings, weekend things. I’ve put in a lot of time.” Volunteers and staff know that an e-mail to Meehan will be answered as late as 10:30 in the evening or hours before they wake up the next morning, whether he’s at home or on the road.

While Meehan is retiring as county director, he could not pass up a new challenge and the opportunity to continue championing the programs he loves. In October he will become statewide director of WSU Extension’s natural resources stewardship program, with wider responsibility for some of the same programs he started such as Beach Watchers.

Meehan’s second-in-command, Judy Feldman of Freeland, will run the Coupeville office for several months until a successor is named. She plans to apply for the position. WSU will convene a committee of local individuals, led by the district director, to review applicants. Meehan predicted the committee will include a county commissioner, two staff members from his office, and a number of volunteers. They will identify the top candidates, interview them and make the selection.

It will be a healthy thing, he says. “Whenever somebody leaves, someone else comes in and breathes new life into a program. I have to get out of the way for that to happen, and see if I can do some good somewhere else.”

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