STILLWATER, Okla. — Oklahoma State University Extension has announced Heather Winn as the 2023 Distinguished Educator. Winn, the Family and Consumer Sciences/4-H educator for OSU Extension in Cherokee County, was recognized during an awards luncheon in Stillwater on Jan. 25.
The annual honor is presented to a county educator, district program specialist or area specialist for his or her dedicated service. The individual is known for a state, regional or national reputation that upholds OSU Extension’s highest standards.
“Heather has used her significant talents to advance Extension through her roles in the different counties she has served,” said Damona Doye, vice president of OSU Extension. “She has provided leadership to a variety of initiatives at the local, district and state levels, and her great networking skills have led to fruitful collaborations with many different groups and agencies.”
This year marks Winn’s 28th year in Extension, a career enriched by childhood memories made in a Muskogee County 4-H club. Her mother, also a past 4-H’er, felt it was important for Winn and her two younger brothers to explore the organization’s opportunities.
Winn and her siblings showed cattle and lambs, and she participated in Fabrics and Fashions, the Make it Yourself with Wool contest and citizenship activities that developed her leadership skills. She served as a state 4-H vice president during her freshman year of college.
“The whole reason I became an employee of Extension was from those experiences I had in 4-H,” she said.
After graduating from Oklahoma State University, Winn took a temporary job teaching high school home economics. When she interviewed for a 4-H/special projects educator role in McCurtain County, the hiring committee called that same night to offer her the job.
“I had this strong feeling about working for Extension and being able to work with kids in the same way I had been mentored as a child,” Winn said.
She spent eight years in McCurtain County, coaching district officers and state ambassadors, teaching youth how to document their hard work in 4-H record books, and helping young minds discover leadership possibilities above and beyond their home county.
With support from other Extension mentors, Winn advocated for school enrichment and introduced the Ag in the Classroom program to teachers in her district who were interested in agriculture and citizenship.
“Extension became known for Character Critters and character development in our county,” she said.
Winn continued focusing on leadership, citizenship and record-keeping once she moved to the 4-H educator role in Cherokee County, but when the FCS position in that office became available, she wanted to diversify her skill set.
“We focused on having a strong connection to other agencies in the county,” she said. “I’m a member of the Cherokee County Health Coalition, and we’ve partnered with many different groups in the community like the Cherokee Nation, Northeastern State University and the Cherokee County Health Department.”
Her Extension columns in the local Sunday paper are widely read, and Cherokee County’s partnership with area Head Start locations helped facilitate a successful class on the Active Parenting: First Five Years curriculum. Winn was also part of the team that brought the Annie’s Project to Oklahoma and conducted its pilot program in 2006. The nonprofit provides educational programs to encourage women in modern farm enterprise.
In 2019, Winn helped coordinate a study on home childcare providers with the University of Oklahoma called Happy Healthy Homes. OU researchers were interested in learning if lessons they had developed for home childcare providers were effective. A series of sessions had been conducted in Oklahoma City, and the scientists wanted the second half of the project to be shared in rural counties.
Winn and her Extension peers began teaching the sessions in local childcare facilities but had to revamp their strategy in 2020 when the pandemic prevented their final in-person workshop.
“We worked with home childcare providers to make sure they had access to participate virtually,” she said. “We taught a lesson on how to use Zoom. Going from completely in-person to all virtual was definitely a learning curve for all of us, but we received a lot of great feedback.”
Winn is comfortable toggling back and forth between 4-H and FCS activities. One week she’s teaching Yoga for Kids at a school, Head Start or another community backdrop. The next, she’s demonstrating how to make a healthy smoothie or after-school snack, all of which emphasize the importance of nutrition, movement and physical activity.
In 2022, Winn partnered with Oklahoma’s Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust program, the Tahlequah Farmers Market and the Health Coalition to establish the Cherokee County Extension office as a food hub for a pilot mobile farmers market project.
She said she’s grateful for the OSU Extension state specialists who help her and other county educators stay relevant and in tune with today’s trends in family and consumer sciences.
“The need for life skills is never going to change,” she said. “The information people learn from Extension programming is valuable. We need to teach people how to feed their families and manage their home finances.”
Winn’s two sons, 26 and 20, are her life, and she embraces the adventures of being a boy mom as they race dirt bikes, hunt, fish, camp, golf and explore other outdoor hobbies. Growing up, they were also exposed to 4-H and learned skills they will carry with them for a lifetime.
Winn said the OSU Extension Distinguished Educator award is the highlight of her career, and she wants to acknowledge the many Extension educators who influenced her life from a 9-year-old 4-H member to the experienced Extension employee she is today.
“I’ve come full circle, and I couldn’t have done it without all the people who helped me in my career and taught me how to be a good educator,” she said. “When I see families I’ve worked with find success in the community, I know we’re making a difference. I love what I do, and I do what I love – how can you beat that?”
OSU Extension uses research-based information to help all Oklahomans solve local issues and concerns, promote leadership and manage resources wisely throughout the state’s 77 counties. Most information is available at little to no cost.