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Innovation drives performance for awardees

Heather Willis receives Extension award from Director Shelly Nickols-Richardson

URBANA, Ill. – Having access to trusted, validated sources of reliable information and know-how is the driver of economic and societal progress. Such unbiased knowledge is the commodity of University of Illinois Extension.

Extension programs help people and communities solve problems, adapt to changes and new opportunities, make informed decisions, develop new skills, and carry innovations forward into practice. *

Two staff were recently honored with the Extension Program Support Excellence Award for their initiative and creativity in the development of themselves and others.

Heather Willis provides professional marketing and communication assets to build promotional efforts for Extension activities in Franklin, Jackson, Perry, Randolph, and Williamson counties, as well as the greater southern Illinois area.

Willis stays current on subject matter through regular professional development offerings, develops systems to streamline marketing tasks, creates critical stakeholder communication pieces, and ultimately elevates the image and reach of Extension in southern Illinois, says Lynn Heins, Extension county director.

“Heather is a self-starter who is known for developing systems which make work processes more efficient,” Heins says. “Her efficient, yet caring, demeanor is noticed and appreciated by every staff member in the unit, as well as surrounding units she has served.”

Willis served in a leadership role for the state’s marketing and communications team and is a frequent trainer and mentor for new communication staff. She is a self-taught video content creator and has created 140 videos for the unit’s YouTube channel followed by more than 1,000 subscribers.

“Heather brings a high level of both competency and commitment to her role as marketing Extension program coordinator,” Heins says. 


Extension staff member Harding receiving award from director
Kate Harding, right, is recognized for her work to increase the 4-H program in Macoupin County. Illinois Extension Director Shelly Nickols-Richardson is pictured during the award ceremony held in November.

Kate Harding is honored for her transformation of the Macoupin County 4-H program, increasing 4-H membership, expanding new audiences, and creating new spaces and opportunities for youth to learn, serve, and lead.

“Kate understands the importance of the volunteer positions within the 4-H program and works hard to identify, recruit, and manage a strong group of adult volunteers,” says Sara Marten, 4-H youth development educator. “She cares and is invested in the program by spending one-on-one time with each club leader at the beginning of the 4-H year, listening and making sure they have the necessary tools and resources to create a positive 4-H experience for their 4-H club members.”

While Kate focuses on her responsibilities in her unit, her knowledge and strengths have been recognized at  regional and state levels.


“Kate excels at understanding the needs and sparks of the youth she serves, making sure that each of her events are fun, engaging, and impactful” Marten says, and is the ultimate team player.

“Consistently advising with compassion, wisdom, and professionalism, she is always willing to lend a helping hand or volunteer to serve in any capacity needed,” says Jessica Jaffry, Jersey County 4-H program coordinator. “Kate is passionate about youth development, and her talents have provided great results, both to her local county and to the University of Illinois Extension system.”

*These statements are included in The Economic and Functional Impact of University of Illinois Extension report demonstrating the value of Extension. 

The awards were presented at Extension's annual conference held in November in Urbana.

PHOTO: Heather Willis, right, is recognized for her marketing excellence with Illinois Extension. Director Shelly Nickols-Richardson is pictured during the award ceremony held in November. 

WRITER: Judy Mae Bingman, Extension Communications Advisor and Web Content Strategist
SOURCE: Elisha Hughes, Extension Workforce Professional and Training Development Associate

About Extension

ABOUT EXTENSION: Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.