Perfect for the job

Local woman dedicates her life to science and service
By Glenda Winders // Photography by Tony Vasquez

Heather Dougherty believes she is the perfect person for her job as county extension director and 4-H youth development educator at the Purdue University Extension in Johnson County. She was born and raised in the Franklin area and was a member of 4-H for 10 years along with being a member of the Future Farmers of America. She graduated from Purdue with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture education.

During the five years she spent teaching agriculture and being the FFA adviser — one year at Clinton Prairie High School in Frankfort, Indiana, before coming back to teach in Franklin for four more years — she earned her master’s degree in educational leadership — a requirement for the job she hoped to someday have as an extension educator — at the American College for Education in Indianapolis. Then, the 4-H educator job opened, and in January 2016, she started working at the extension.

“The timing was perfect,” she said. “I was burned out. All teachers are busy, but I taught six different classes a day, such as animal science, plant science and principles of agriculture, as well as advanced classes for students who were pursuing dual credit. I was also the FFA advisor, so I was coaching after school and on weekends, taking students to contests. It was probably my fault for not setting boundaries and saying no, but it’s hard to say that to a kid who is passionate and excited about something.”

Today, she still works with children, but her job description includes quite a bit more. She coordinates and manages the 4-H program, which she says means educating children, preparing them for college or career readiness as they decide what they will do after high school and making sure they have life skills. It is especially important to her to create a welcoming environment.

“There are kids who don’t like to do sports or music, so we create a sense of belonging,” she said.

Dougherty teaches in schools, has programs in her office for kids to do over spring break, runs summer camps and gets 4-H members ready to display their projects at the county fair. Currently, there are more than 1,200 children enrolled in 4-H in Johnson County. In addition to working with members, she also manages all the volunteers in the program and the details associated with club management.

Dougherty works alongside two other extension educators — Shalee Bradley and Linda Clutz.

Shalee Bradley oversees agriculture and natural resources, working with farmers in such areas as soil testing, crops, pesticides, animals, bug identification and tree and plant identification. She sits on the park board, as well as the planning and zoning commission and runs the Master Gardeners program, the open class part of the fair — vegetables, plants, flowers and beekeeping, and she partners with Dougherty in putting on the garden camp.

Linda Clutz works with health and human sciences and deals with all mental health issues, eating well with diabetes, how to have a healthy baby, how to budget money to grocery shop and more. She holds classes in food preservation and teaches financial literacy to elementary students.

“Purdue is Indiana’s land-grant university,” Dougherty said. “So every county has a Purdue extension office. Offices look different, depending on the size of the town, but we are all out in the community teaching and gathering resources. We are the link between the county and Purdue.”

Also working in their office is a community wellness coordinator and a support staff. Dougherty oversees day-to-day operations and is the spokesperson for the extension. She also goes to county commissioner meetings and manages budgets. She and the other staff members report to the area director.

When asked about a day in her life, she said it depends on the season. Open enrollment for 4-H begins in October, which means she is promoting the organization and going to schools with 4-H ambassadors to tell third, fourth and fifth graders what 4-H is all about. Once the kids are enrolled, she hosts a project fair so they can decide their focus for the year with choices that range from tractor-driving, dogs and rabbits to sewing, baking and much more.

November and December are the months when she attends conferences, training and a career development event. She also chooses the judges at contests where kids from 4-H and FFA compete.

January brings more enrollments, educational programs, going into schools and financial paperwork due from the various clubs. Leaders must reenroll, which involves background checks to ensure everyone complies.

Animal identification days are in March, April and May, when members with livestock projects bring their animals in to be weighed and tagged.

“We enroll kids in 4-H, and we enroll animals in 4-H,” she said. “Even if they are a 4-H project, they’re still livestock in Indiana, so not only do we have to abide by 4-H animal-identification policies, but we also have to abide by state Board of Animal Health regulations.”

This is also when she starts to disseminate information about summer trips, camps and workshops and prepare for the fair and hire judges. June brings camps, mini-camps, 4-H academy, 4-H roundup and a junior leader conference, followed by July and fair week.

Dougherty spends August at the Indiana State Fair, where she is also one of the show managers in the beef cattle barn.

When that’s over, she takes an annual vacation to Florida with her dad, comes back to make year-end reports and goes to the national 4-H conference.

Despite her busy schedule, Dougherty still manages to find playtime. She lives in the house she grew up in, along with her rescue dog, Zadie, and relishes gardening, grass cutting, walking and bicycling — anything that involves being outside. She also enjoys exercise.

“It’s my time; my outlet to get rid of any stress I need to work through,” she said. “I like to be active. If I’m down, it’s probably because I’m sick.”

Most of all, she likes spending time with her family, many of whom live just down the road from her in Bargersville, Indiana. Her father, Tom, is a retired truck driver and Zadie’s primary dog sitter. Shelly, Dougherty’s mother, has devoted her life to her children, taking jobs to be near them that have included driving a school bus, which she still does today. Her younger brother, Hunter, and “bonus” sister, Ashley, a cousin who was raised by Dougherty’s parents, round out the family.

Dougherty credits her parents for the success she now enjoys.

“They taught Hunter, Ashley and me from a very young age to work hard for what you want. Even if you’re from a family that has no money, you can still have what you want if you work
hard enough.”

Other influences have also contributed to her love of her job.

“I was in 4-H, and I really loved it,” she said. “I really believe in its values and its mission and what it does for kids. Kids are my passion. I love working with them. And I love the Johnson County community. We try to help everybody and provide them with resources and be supportive of one another.”

According to Dougherty, her Grandma Moo – named by a young Heather because she had cows, initiated the passion for agriculture in the family. And while her dad didn’t come from a farming family, she said he “turned a corner” once her parents married.

“Family is a big part of it for me,” Dougherty said. “Our history with agriculture runs very deep.”