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Upwards of 100 people gather at the Milltown Auction Barn last Tuesday to support Rhonda Crecelius, right, who was notified by Purdue Extension that her volunteer status, after serving more than a decade with the 4-H program, is not being renewed. The gathering was organized by Robin Morgan, center. Below, Oakley Brewer's drawing is one of several that children made to show their appreciation for Crecelius. Photos by Chris Adams

Community shows support for removed longtime 4-H volunteer

January 23, 2019
Between 75 and 100 people came out to the Milltown Auction Barn last Tuesday evening to support a longtime Crawford County 4-H volunteer who the previous week learned that Purdue Extension would no longer allow her to serve with the organization.

The meeting, organized by Robin Morgan, at times was filled with tears and at times anger but mostly confusion about Purdue's decision.

"They call us a program. We are not a program. We are a family," Morgan, her voice cracking, said as she explained the gathering was as much about healing.

Morgan recalled the importance Crecelius has played in the lives of her children as 4-H members. Her oldest, Mahala, was among the top goat exhibitors during her time in 4-H. Not only did Crecelius encourage Mahala, when, as a first-grader, she showed "two of the ugliest goats ever," but she helped instill the confidence Morgan needed to get in the show area and exhibit.

"This kid did not speak to people until 4-H," Morgan said.

Morgan now serves as a mentor to younger children, volunteering with Crawford County 4-H.

Crecelius prepared a statement for those in attendance, but, worried that she wouldn't be able to get through it without breaking down, asked 4-H Council member Terry Allen to read it.

"I was called to the Extension office on Monday, Jan. 7. At that time, I was told that my volunteer status would not be approved," Crecelius' statement read, "and handed a letter that I needed to sign to resign my position on the 4-H Council. I was also told a few items that was the issue, but all those included the entire 4-H Council and decisions they have made. I declined to sign the letter and left the office."

Crecelius noted that she worked in the office with the local Extension Service and, therefore, provided help where needed on a daily basis.

Having become a 4-H Council member in 2008, Crecelius said she, along with others, were instrumental in getting the livestock barn constructed and the pavilion renovated at the Crawford County 4-H Community Park south of Marengo. She then was responsible for scheduling the pavilion, which, along with the rest of the park, is owned by the 4-H Council, not Purdue, to outside groups, also ensuring that it is physically ready.

Crecelius also was responsible for scheduling the entertainment for the annual 4-H fair and was a staple at the park, often serving in the 4-H concession stand, not only during the fair but other events. She organized the annual trunk-or-treat in October, the Holiday Gift Show each December for the past 11 years, fish fries and, as of 2017, the Crawford County Sorghum Festival. Crecelius also made sure things were ready for the annual 4-H awards banquet.

"The livestock numbers (for 4-H) have tripled in the last 10 years since I have been the club leader and barn superintendent," Crecelius said in her statement.

"At no time have I taken credit for everything that has happened at the 4-H park singlehandedly," she continued. "Been a great group of volunteers on the 4-H Council and also have some awesome 4-H parents who have helped me with anything I ask. Our program has come so far since I began volunteering. I can only hope that I was part of that group."

Crecelius said she appealed Purdue's decision but was told in a letter dated Jan. 9 and signed by Purdue Extension Director Dr. Jason Henderson that the decision was not subject to review.

"There is no appeal process for this decision," Henderson's letter, as read aloud by Morgan, stated. " We will continue to move forward with ensuring that all youth with the Crawford County 4-H program are provided the opportunity to participate in educational experiences in a safe, open and inclusive environment."

Several people in attendance wondered how that would work without enough volunteers, as Allen, as of that evening, was the only Crawford County 4-H Council member to have been approved by Purdue for another year of service as a volunteer.

Longtime 4-H Council member Monica Stephenson said she, like Crecelius, has been contacted by the Extension Service to discuss her future as a volunteer. She said she isn't optimistic.

Others found it strange that the 4-H program year begins annually on Oct. 1 and volunteers are only now being contacted about their status.

There was discussion about what could be done to reverse Crecelius' status as well as ensuring that other volunteers would not suffer her fate. While a petition has been circulated in the community and the phone numbers for Henderson and other Purdue Extension officials were distributed at the meeting, Crawford County Councilman Jerry Brewer urged the Crawford County Board of Commissioners to flex its muscle regarding the annual contract for services it signs with the organization.

The contract for 2019 already has been approved by commissioners, but the county council may have some — albeit slight — leverage. The commissioners in December approved the contract subject to the council approving an additional $1,070, as the contract — which calls for the county to pay $43,270 for services — is more than the amount previously budgeted by the council for 2019.

Following news of Crecelius no longer being affiliated with 4-H, comments in support of Crecelius — and against Purdue Extension — began swirling on Facebook, prompting a response from Dr. Renee K. McKee, assistant director of Purdue Extension and State 4-H Program Leader, that also included Henderson's name, addressed to "those concerned about the future of the Crawford County 4-H Program" and posted on the Crawford County Extension office's Facebook page.

"When our staff deem it necessary to make changes in the organization or implementation of the educational components of the 4-H Program for the youth involved, it is within their purview to do so. These are not decisions that are made in haste but rather are decisions that have been given careful consideration. Decisions of this nature are always made in light of our goal to assure quality educational experiences for our 4-H members with the end goal being to ensure appropriate educational opportunities that build leadership and life skills in a safe, enjoyable and constructive manner.

"While some are resistant to change and may choose to disagree with decisions that have been made regarding the programmatic management of the Crawford County 4-H Program, it is problematic for us when individuals choose to misrepresent facts and mischaracterize the Purdue Extension staff. Doing so in a social media platform and calling into the very character of the individuals involved (including other 4-H volunteers who may have differing viewpoints) is something we find unacceptable."

Attempts to reach McKee for comment were unsuccessful.

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