August 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA2

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Three Keys to a Successful Limited-Resource Families Program

This article reviews three tenants of successful programming for limited-resource families. The keys to successful programming include understanding the audience, expanding education through volunteers, and networking with community agencies. Based on Oklahoma's experience with a money management program, the authors are convinced that these tenants of community-based education are critical for reaching not only limited-resource audiences but also other non-traditional groups.

Glennis Couchman
Extension State Specialist
Family and Consumer Economics
Department of Family Relations and Child Development
Oklahoma State University
Internet address:

Glenna Williams
Extension Assistant State Specialist
EFNEP Coordinator
Oklahoma State University

Donna Cadwalader
Extension State Specialist
Leadership Development and Program Evaluation
Assistant Professor
Department of Family Relations and Child Development
Oklahoma State University

Limited-resource families are a growing concern for family educators and present a challenge to Extension home economists to develop new intervention programs to lessen the hardships caused by poverty. To have the opportunity to work with limited- resource families, however, Extension must first reach them. Because limited-resource clientele are not a traditional Extension audience, and given the characteristics of the limited- resource family, traditional programming approaches are not appropriate. Does Cooperative Extension have a role in addressing the specific needs of these families? The experience in Oklahoma has convinced us that the answer is yes.

This article reviews three tenets of successful programming outreach to limited-resource families: understanding the audience; expanding education through volunteers; and networking with community agencies. These tenets of community-based adult education may also apply to Extension programming with other nontraditional groups.

Understanding the Audience

Two primary factors contribute to minimal living standards of limited-resource families. First, limited-resource individuals and families are struggling just to maintain the basic needs of housing, health care, adequate nutrition, and child care. Second, families experiencing limited resources generally have an inadequate education, which is defined as anything less than a high school diploma and functional literacy (Extension Service, 1991). Therefore, limited-resource audiences comprise the working poor, families eligible for or receiving public assistance, single parents, and teenage parents.

An educator's attitude and sensitivity to culturally diverse life experiences are key factors in working with limited-resource audiences. Failure to demonstrate acceptance of the realities of life shaped by poverty destroys trust between the educator and the limited-resource audience. Additionally, an educator needs to carefully consider how his/her words and actions are perceived by the families (Kruzich, 1988). Therefore, supplying Extension staff and volunteer educators with the appropriate tools to effectively teach limited-resource audiences is important. But, educational materials that have proved successful for middle- class audiences are not relevant for limited-resource audiences (Anderson & Niemi, 1969; and Fitchen, 1991). As a result, paid and volunteer Extension educators need materials that relate to the everyday world and needs of limited-resource audiences.

Although this type of resource management educational material had not been previously available for Oklahoma educators when working with this audience, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension specialists decided this was a priority need. Specialists began by interviewing limited-resource individuals and families to provide a basis for the planning and development of a curriculum. As a result of the interviews, the specialists developed a program, "Keys to Successful Money Management." The curriculum contains 18 lessons in five modules: (a) You and Your Shopping, (b) You and Your Money, (c) You and Your House, (d) You and Your Work, and (e) Your and Your Car. The lessons were written at a third- to fifth- grade reading level with accompanying leader's guides.

Empowering Volunteers

Volunteers have been known to increase the educational outreach of Extension. Laughlin (1990) maintained that volunteers contact people who might never be served by Extension, thus bringing greater diversity to our clientele base. According to Laughlin (1990), past experience has shown that volunteers target specialized groups.

Volunteer educators for the "Keys To Successful Money Management" program were recruited to serve in a teaching role with participating families. They were empowered to teach basic resource management principles to families in their own homes. The program delivery design is a creative adaptation of the home- visitation Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program model. The delivery strategy is important because limited-resource audiences do not typically participate in educational group programming outside of their immediate neighborhood (Fitchen, 1981). Therefore, home-visitation allows volunteer educators to provide one-to-one learning opportunities in a non-threatening atmosphere.

Programming targeted to limited-resource families must rely on acceptance of the volunteer. Trust must exist between the volunteer and family members. The time required to develop trust can be frustrating. Building trust often involves a willingness to do unusual activities. For instance, one volunteer helped an immigrant receive a green card. After obtaining the green card, the person became employed. A retired couple, serving as volunteer educators in the "Keys" program, provided motivation and support for three young mothers. The clients decided to return to school for vocational training. The volunteers also indicated that the children were eager for the attention and "hugs" from the male volunteer because many lived in homes with no father present.

An impact study of the "Keys to Successful Money Management" pilot program indicated that volunteer educators were effective. Specific outcomes were:

  1. Volunteer educators assisted family members in finding employment after the completion of lessons in You and Your Work module.

  2. Volunteer educators assisted families in seeking assistance from social service agencies.

  3. Volunteers observed increased feelings of self-esteem in family members after completing the in-home education program.

  4. Ten volunteers contributed 685 contact hours valued at $4,795 (based on $7.00 per hour) and traveled 2,824 miles to reach the client families.

The experience proved equally valuable for volunteers. After working with several culturally diverse families, one volunteer stated, "No one leaves the experience without changed attitudes about the families. They face multiple problems and many of them have fallen through the cracks of the social system."

Networking with Other Agencies

Today's economic and social problems of limited-resource families are so complex that resolution depends on interagency cooperation, and a well-developed plan of action is critical to forging strong linkages. Thus, selecting network members who will commit themselves to the education process is very important. The network partners must be flexible and open to new ideas. The action plan in Oklahoma involved communication with community agencies to explore options for reaching limited- resource families. The agencies were receptive to cooperative efforts to reach low-income families perhaps because educational programming by Extension filled a need previously identified by the agencies. Collaboration with service agencies increased the outreach of Extension and brought people to our organization that may never have been reached. As a result, the Department of Human Services; Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program; Headstart; and, housing authorities were extenders of Extension information.

In addition, every network needs facilitators. County Extension Home Economists served as facilitators for this program, setting the stage for the program process and establishing clear communication so that all agencies could contribute and benefit from participation. The participating network partners also assisted with the recruitment of volunteer resource management educators and family referrals. To help clarify responsibilities of the agencies, several agency representatives participated in the in-service education for Extension staff and volunteers. However, the specialists concluded that if the agency members of the network simply identified and recruited families and volunteers for educational programs the networking process would still be worth the effort.


Oklahoma's involvement in working with limited-resource audiences has been a positive growth experience for Extension home economists and volunteer educators. They have participated in seminars that provided information on perceiving needs of limited-resource families, understanding differences between themselves and the audience, and applying lay counseling techniques in a home-visitation setting. This knowledge was incorporated into effective learning experiences to improve resource-management skills of family members using the five- module curriculum.

Successful work with limited-resource audiences requires Extension educators to change from a traditional educational method of large group meetings held in a central location to small, natural groups within the neighborhood or in a one-to-one situation (Fitchen, 1981). We must realize that what works for middle-class audiences will not work for limited-resource audiences. Paid and volunteer Extension educators need commitment to limited-resource individuals and families, empathy, and perseverance to reach and teach this audience. Oklahoma has found one way to accomplish this goal.

The investment in dissemination of the "Keys To Successful Money Management" resulted in a substantial return to both families and society. First, a home environment which nurtures a positive attitude toward resource management is more likely to pass those values to children. The contrary is true as well: a home environment which places little or no value on resource management is a contributing factor to a cycle of poverty. Second, working with agencies eliminates duplication, provides access to the target audience, and uses the expertise of personnel skilled at working with limited-resource families. Many human-service agencies realize the need for resource management education but they are not equipped to teach it. Thus, Extension can enhance both the effectiveness and efficiency of our programs by meeting this need.


Anderson, D. & Niemi, J. A. (1969). Adult education and the disadvantaged adult. Vancouver: University of British Columbia, Department of Adult Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 029 160)

Extension Service (1991). Reaching limited resource audiences: Limited resource audiences committee report. Washington, DC: United States Department of Agriculture.

Fitchen, J. M. (1981). Poverty in rural America: A case study. Boulder, CO: Westwood.

Fitchen, J. M. (1991). Endangered spaces, enduring places: Change, identity, and survival in rural America. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Kruzich, J. (1988). Helping families with income problems. In C. Chilman, F. Cox, & E. Nunnally, (Eds.), Employment and economic problems: Families in trouble series (Vol. 1). Newbury Park, CT: Sage.

Laughlin, S. (1990). The challenge of working with extenders. Journal of Extension, XXVIII(Fall), 29.