Faculty and staff of the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, gathered from across the state, received the agency’s Superior Service Award during a ceremony Jan. 28 in Bryan-College Station.

One man, Rick Avery, faces forward and is talking to three other people
Rick Avery, Ph.D., interim director of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, visits with winners gathered for the Superior Service Awards banquet. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

The Superior Service Award is the agency’s highest award, recognizing personnel who provide outstanding performance in education or other services to the organization and Texas residents, said Rick Avery, Ph.D., interim director for AgriLife Extension, Bryan-College Station.

“These award winners are to be commended for the exemplary work they do each day to improve the lives of Texans, both in their respective counties and across the state,” Avery said. “Their educational outreach and technical assistance help Texans meet society’s challenges as well as their individual needs. We are incredibly thankful for their service.”

All recipients are with AgriLife Extension unless otherwise indicated. The categories and names of individuals receiving the Superior Service Award are:

County Extension Agent – Early Career, two to seven years 

— Jessica Chase, agriculture and natural resources, Brazoria County. Chase started in 2015 and has gone above and beyond with her beef, forage, pesticide and youth programs. She quickly learned the agency’s emergency management system, opening an animal shelter that housed livestock and companion animals and establishing an animal supply point after the 2016 Memorial Day Flood. She also helped in 2017 with Hurricane Harvey and again in 2019 in response to a flood. She was recognized by Brazos Monthly as a Harvey’s Hero during the Hurricane Harvey disaster. Chase was a part of disaster efforts to care for 2,432 animals, distribute $91,500 worth of donations and deploy 688 volunteers.

— Perla Flores, family and community health, Willacy County. In her five-year tenure in Willacy County, Flores has shown a remarkable talent for working in communities to address issues and needs through educational programs, projects and initiatives. The county had not had a family and community health presence in over 30 years, but she has now established a dynamic Healthy South Texas Coalition and introduced numerous programs, creating positive health outcomes. Each year, Flores has demonstrated program growth through increased participation and improved outcomes. She also has established the Healthy South Texas Recognized School program in multiple school districts.

— Zelina Zavala, health, Kleberg and Kenedy counties. In her short tenure, Zavala has positively impacted county residents by addressing wellness issues through her Healthy South Texas programs and projects. She has established a dynamic collaboration with Texas A&M University – Kingsville and implemented numerous programs to create positive health outcomes. Since 2018, 2,623 adults and 3,387 youth have participated in Healthy South Texas nutrition, health and wellness educational programs. Zavala’s health program was solidly established in her first year and has expanded tremendously in the years since to help Texans thrive in Kleberg and Kenedy counties. 

Superior Service Awards slide with date and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension logo

County Extension Agent – Mid-Career, eight to 20 years

— Felice Acker, family and community health, Castro County. Acker works tirelessly to make a difference in the lives of those she serves. She has identified the relevant needs of the different communities within the county and implements educational programs that impact both youth and adults. In 2018, Castro County transitioned to a single-agent county, with Acker running a well-rounded program. One of her co-workers stated, “Felice goes above and beyond, not only with her programs and working in her community but also in guiding and mentoring newer agents. She is honest and straightforward and always has a helpful suggestion.” 

— Bill Holcombe, agriculture and natural resources, Clay County. Holcombe has shown a passion for 4-Hers, producers, homeowners and the public and provided educational and leadership opportunities to the families in Galveston County and Clay County for over 15 years. Gaining knowledge to share with others and providing opportunities is a core value of the 4-H program that Holcombe learned years ago as a member. This ability to make a difference and improve the lives of others by sharing knowledge and providing opportunities to those who may not be aware of all that is out there were key reasons behind his becoming an agent.   

— Paul Winski, horticulture, Harris County. Winski, who began working for the agency in 2013, provides evidence-based information for greenhouse and nursery producers, golf course managers, landscape designers, landscape maintenance operators, arborists and licensed irrigators. He has worked with volunteers and community groups to identify issues and partnership opportunities for resource development. He also established a Horticulture Committee, representing various sectors of the green industry, to identify issues; plan, market, implement and evaluate educational programs; and interpret results to stakeholders.  

Administrative Support – County  

— Ginger Benson,office manager, Galveston County. Benson started as a volunteer in the Galveston County Master Gardener intern class of 2014, and in 2015 was hired as the administrative assistant for the horticulture department of the AgriLife Extension office in Galveston. She was promoted to office manager in 2019. She has become the linchpin to the Galveston County Master Gardeners and horticulture department in the office. She was cited for her contributions to the office, programs and community through her dedication and commitment to the agency mission, as well as her attention to detail, research and problem-solving skills and general success managing the budget.   

— Kathy El-Jabsheh, office manager, Johnson County. Since November 2009, El-Jabsheh has been a consistent presence in the AgriLife Extension office in Johnson County Extension Office. She first started as a part-time secretary in the Johnson County office and moved into the full-time office manager position within a year. Having seen many agents and other county staff come and go from Johnson County during her tenure, she has been the consistent, key element and is an integral partner in the success of AgriLife Extension in Johnson County. Her work ethic and professional demeanor show she cares about the agents and clientele served and has gained the respect and trust of each. 

Administrative Support – District/State 

— Rosy Melchor, district office manager, Uvalde. Melchor demonstrates steadfast leadership and dedication to the agency’s Southwest District 10 and guides operations in the district to be agent- and program-oriented. Her attention to detail and dedication to excellence are invaluable and set a great example for the rest of the team. For the past two years, Melchor has been a vital part of the district business meetings for all district and faculty staff. During these meetings, she works diligently to keep agents updated on upcoming deadlines and to understand the purpose and need for these forms.  

— Aubry Spikes, administrative associate, Office of Data and Accountability, Bryan-College Station. Spikes is a valued and exceedingly productive member of the new Office of Data and Accountability team since September. She provides ongoing statewide support for two of the office’s critical services to the agency: evaluation and accountability. She also handles hundreds of emails and phone calls in support of evaluation. In just three years, Spikes has triaged, troubleshot, logged, scanned and verified 4,704 individual scan form sets for evaluation purposes for 626 AgriLife Extension educators and administrators. She also provides support to the V.G. Young Institute of County Government.  

Program Support 

— Jeff Waskom, AgriLife Extension assistant, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Bryan-College Station. Waskom joined AgriLife Extension in 1990 as a technician in the Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory. Over time, his role changed, and he was promoted to his current position. He serves as the assistant manager addressing day-to-day sample, data and report flow, while interacting with clientele and answering questions. Typically, Waskom is the first contact clients have with the laboratory and, in many cases, is the only face or voice clientele may see or hear.  Over the past five years, he has logged approximately 93,000 public contacts, with 7,500 of those being in person at the laboratory.

Extension Program Specialist, Program Manager/Program Coordinator – Early Career 

— Brittany Chesser, aquatic vegetation management, Department of Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management, Bryan-College Station. Joining AgriLife Extension in May 2019 as the aquatic vegetation management program specialist, Chesser’s primary duties are to develop, deliver, teach, implement and evaluate programs, services, products and processes related to aquatic vegetation management. She also performs routine water quality analyses and other diagnostics, produces client reports and recommends amendments in her role as lead diagnostic scientist for part of the Aquatic Diagnostics Laboratory. Her work with the Aquatic Diagnostics Laboratory has generated an economic impact of more than $5.5 million. 

Extension Program Specialist, Program Manager or Program Coordinator – Mid Career  

— Wizzie Brown, integrated pest management, Travis County. Brown’s focus on entomology for homeowners, gardeners and pest management professionals is robust, impactful and highly valued by her clientele. She is able to explain insects in a relatable way to every Texan through podcasts, blog postings and television media. She was cited for her ability to organize, plan and implement educational programs. During her time with the agency, Brown has reached a staggering 46,867 individuals through 973 educational programs. The praise she receives from the Master Gardeners, Master Naturalists and county agents all comment on her ability to educate in a manner that “makes you want to learn more about bugs.” 

— Danielle Hammond-Krueger, Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, Department of Nutrition, Bryan-College Station. Hammond-Krueger served as an assistant with the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program from 2008-2014 and currently serves as a program specialist. She develops culturally appropriate curricula related to nutrition, chronic disease prevention and management for county agents and the public. Since 2016, she has conducted 55 trainings and presentations throughout the state and developed five publications related to chronic disease prevention and management. In 2020, she was lead on a $100,000 Texas Department of State Health Services project to help “Texas Take Control” of diabetes.

Extension Specialist or Program Director – Early Career 

— Justin Scheiner, Ph.D., viticulture specialist, Department of Horticultural Sciences, Bryan-College Station. Scheiner has developed and implemented an outstanding program in support of the Texas wine and grape industry. His efforts have led to impressive gains in knowledge, changes in participant behavior and economic benefit. He has an outstanding relationship with the industry, including the Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, the Texas Hill Country Wineries Association and the High Plains Winegrowers. He also has developed relationships with individual vineyard and winery owners, colleagues on the grape-wine team and the Texas Department of Agriculture. Scheiner’s expertise in curriculum development is unmatched.

Extension Specialist or Program Director – Mid-Career 

— Sonja Swiger, Ph.D., entomologist, Department of Entomology, Stephenville. In the time that Swiger has been with the agency, she has brought the attention and support of two programs focusing on humans and livestock to the attention of our stakeholders. When hired, her responsibility was to focus on livestock entomology and concerns pertaining to ectoparasites of cattle. However, as mosquito-borne diseases increased, she became part of the Western Gulf Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases. As the medical entomologist for AgriLife Extension, her responsibilities quickly shifted to working with officials on vector management. Swiger was cited for her flexibility and adaptability.

Volunteerism – Individual and Team 

— Liz Buckner, family and community health agent, Rusk County. Buckner formed the Rusk County Leadership, Encouraging, Activity and Nutrition, L.E.A.N., Coalition in 2005. This volunteer-led group’s mission is chronic disease prevention through education and awareness on physical activity, nutrition and other behaviors for optimum health. In 2016, Buckner adopted the agency’s “Learn, Grow, Eat and Go!” program targeting third-grade youth, combining academic achievement, gardening, nutrient-dense food experiences, physical activity, and school and family engagement. This began a journey to build a sustainable nutrition and garden program now in its fifth year and in five of the eight Rusk County schools.

— South Texas Volunteer Team– Team members are Luisa Colin, special initiatives coordinator, Healthy South Texas, Weslaco; Erica Reyes, program specialist, Healthy South Texas, Weslaco; Angie Sifuentes, family and community health agent, Webb County; Samuel Luera, health agent, Zapata County; Perla Flores, health agent, Willacy County.

Volunteers are critical to help AgriLife Extension expand efforts to fulfill its mission to improve the lives of people, organizations, businesses and communities through high-quality, relevant education. This team quickly saw the value of involving others to support their efforts to reach and exceed goals. They traveled to help train volunteers in other counties, providing leader training packets and work-flow sheets to support volunteers in educational delivery. Over 739 volunteers have been trained in programs such as Learn, Grow, Eat and Go!, Walk Across Texas!, Dinner Tonight Jr., Maintain No Gain and Master Wellness. They have reached over 19,960 adults and youth in a series of lessons.

Diversity – Individual and Team 

— Sonia Coyle, family and community health, Travis County. Coyle joined the agency in July 2013 and has led or supported programs on Dinner Tonight!, Step Up and Scale Down, Master Wellness Volunteers, Food Show and Food Challenge contests, Better Living for Texans, Texas Extension Education Association and Financial Literacy. She also serves as an advisor for the 4-H Family and Community Health Coalition. According to Texas Data, over the past five years, Coyle has directly educated 10,238 people regarding nutrition and health using multiple sessions and cutting-edge behavioral techniques that have resulted in some impressive improvements in health and wellness. Additionally, 96 Master Wellness volunteers have extended her educational outreach and amplified the impact of her programs.

— Coming Together for Racial Understanding Team — Team members are Dawn Burton, health coordinator, Prairie View A&M University Cooperative Extension Program, CEP; JaNelle Casson, 4-H program specialist, Temple; Sonja Stueart-Davis, family and community health agent, Harris County; Amy Ressler, family and community health agent, Montgomery County; Craig Rotter, Ph.D., executive director, Texas Rural Leadership Program, Bryan-College Station; Mario Villarino, agriculture and natural resources agent, Hopkins County; Derrick Banks, CEP agriculture and natural resources, Fort Bend County; Daisy Castillo, Better Living for Texans agent, Nueces County; Natalie Cervantes, 4-H and youth development agent, Bexar County; Monty Dozier, Ph.D., director, Disaster Assessment and Recovery, Bryan-College Station; Liz Espie, family and community health agent, Ellis County; Andie Everett, CEP community and economic development agent, El Paso County; John Ferguson, CEP 4-H and youth development agent, Cass County; Molly Forman, family and community health agent, Hall County; Corey Hicks, CEP agriculture and natural resources agent, Houston County; Ryan Merrel, 4-H and youth development agent, Angelina County; Jennifer Nickell, CEP family and community health agent, Potter County; Courtney Parrot, family and community health agent, Brown County.

The Coming Together for Racial Understanding work group is a collective of professionals connected by their passion for helping AgriLife Extension and the communities it serves to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive. Collectively contributing over 33,600 work hours, providing direct training and support for over 1,800 people and creating a comprehensive survey analysis, the group has made a significant impact that exemplifies the true meaning of superior service and dedication to diversity and pluralism.  


— Ben-Milam Youth Agribusiness Tour — County agent team members are Floyd Ingram, agriculture and natural resources, Milam County; Lyle Zoeller, agriculture and natural resources, Bell County; Whitney Ingram, natural resources, Bell County.

Less than 2% of our nation’s population is directly tied to farming and ranching. This is the reason that agricultural literacy and advocacy among youth is more important than ever before, and firsthand exposure to personnel and operations within the industry is by far the best education platform available. The need to support youth who have a desire to pursue a college degree or higher education in the field of agriculture and one day have a career in the industry led to this team to focus its programming efforts on a career-oriented, interactive tour of local production agriculture for youth. The team is supported by many industry professionals in Bell and Milam counties. And the tour provides an in-depth, firsthand look at local ag businesses, the role of community leaders and a real-world perspective of what it takes to feed, clothe and fuel the world they live in. 

— Central Texas Beef Cattle — AgriLife Extension agriculture and natural resources county agent team members are Shane McLellan, McLennan County; Zach Davis, Hill County; Lyle Zoeller, Bell County; David Groschke, Limestone County; Robert Ferguson, Coryell County; Bruce Boyd, Hamilton County; Chelsea Dorward, Bosque County; Pasquale Swaner, Falls County; Justin Hale, Johnson County; and Jerod Meurer, natural resources agent, McLennan County.

The Central Texas Beef Team jointly hosts the annual CenTex Beef Cattle Symposium, Central Texas Small Grains Field Day in April and the Stocker Cattle Program in June. As the leading single agriculture commodity in these counties, cattle are economically important. Educational information and best management practices provided by this team are tailored to fit beef producers’ needs. Programming looks at critical and emerging issues facing producers and continues to be a priority of AgriLife Extension programming in these counties.  

— Rolling Plains Sheep and Goat University– AgriLife Extension agriculture and natural resources county agent team members are Josh Kouns, Baylor County; Jerry Coplen, Knox County; Joshua Smartt, Archer County; Michael Bowman, Foard County; Charlie Martin, Jack County; David Graf, Wichita County; Langdon Reagan, Wilbarger County; Toby Oliver, King County; Brandon Cave, Kent County; Cody Myers, Stonewall County; Justin Hansard, Montague County; Mike Jeffcoat, Cottle County; and Justin Gilliam, Hardeman County.

The Rolling Plains Sheep and Goat University just completed its fourth year as an annual multicounty event in the agency’s District 3. The vision was not only to bring sheep and goat education to this geographic region but to help potential producers get started and provide them with the needed tools to move forward with confidence in their practices. Today, the Rolling Plains Sheep and Goat University is becoming an annual tradition, with over 200 producers from both Texas and Oklahoma attending.   

— Texas 4-H GLOBE – Global Leadership Opportunities Beyond EducationTeam members are Darlene Locke, Ph.D., specialist, Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences; Montza Williams, Ph.D., state program director, Texas 4-H Youth Development; and Charlene Belew, volunteer, all of Bryan-College Station.

The Texas 4-H GLOBE – Global Leadership Opportunities Beyond Education – The team provides an opportunity for youth to increase cultural awareness and cultural understanding through a two-year leadership and citizenship program. In Tier I, the educational focus is culture and poverty facilitated through a camp experience simulating impoverished conditions. Youth are required to make presentations and coordinate a service-learning project to continue with Tier II. Tier II is a week-long immersive experience in Costa Rica to further study culture, poverty, sustainable agricultural systems and service-learning. Since the program’s inception in 2016, 128 4-H members have participated in GLOBE. The team is currently preparing the third GLOBE cohort for travel to Costa Rica in June. HEB has generously donated $25,000 to support the GLOBE program and create opportunities for additional 4-H members.

Emerging Issues Teams  

— Combating Mental Health Challenges in Underserved Communities During COVID — Family and Community Health Unit team members are Lakshmi Mahadevan, Ph.D., special populations specialist; Rachel Brauner, program specialist, Military Programs; Laurie Naumann, program director, SUCCESS … Powered by You; and Bobbi Brooks, program manager, Watch Ur BAC, all of Bryan-College Station; and Hannah Jeanise, risk reduction program coordinator, Army Substance Abuse Program, Joint Base San Antonio.

The COVID pandemic has brought an increase in mental health concerns compounded by a continuing lack of access to appropriate care and loneliness due to social isolation or distancing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture-funded “Reducing Opioid Use and Misuse Through Mental Health First Aid in Rural Texas” grant focuses on providing “hope with facts,” reducing stigma and promoting the sense of community by ensuring people they are not alone. The grant provides a pathway to prevention, timely intervention and recovery that was unavailable to rural Texans. During the 2020 program year, the grant project team trained over 160 Mental Health First Aiders.

— Greenies Urban Farm Team — Team members are Larry Stein, Ph.D., associate department head and program leader, Department of Horticulture, Uvalde; Nelda Speller, county director, Bexar County; David Rodriquez, horticulture agent, Bexar County; Angelica Gutierrez, family and community health agent, Bexar County; Tommy Calvert Jr., Bexar County Commissioner, Precinct 4; Thomas Guevara, chief of staff, Office of the County Manager; Jesus Escamilla, project manager; and Ruby Zavala, senior horticulturist, Urban Forestry Division, City of San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department.

In 2019, the local AgriLife Extension office was approached by Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Calvert Jr. to collaborate and develop the Greenies Urban Farm project. The Greenies Urban Farm was 10-acres of undeveloped inner-city land acquired by Bexar County in what is known as San Antonio’s Eastside Promise Zone. Those living within the Eastside Promise Zone have long faced critical challenges related to food insecurity, poverty and obesity. In 2020, to extend the “ladders of opportunity” and combat the critical issue of food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic for families on the Eastside, one of the 10 acres was dedicated for ground planting of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, red and green kale and spinach. AgriLife Extension personnel and Master Gardener volunteers planted, maintained and harvested 10,545 pounds of fresh vegetables that were donated predominantly to churches in minority communities, with any extras going to the San Antonio Food Bank. 

Agency Leadership 

— Paula Butler, regional program leader, family and community health and 4-H and youth development for Districts 4 and District 5, Dallas. Butler has served as the regional program leader for the East Region since January 2014. Prior to that, she served as the family and consumer sciences county agent in Navarro County for 10 years. Her vision for nutrition and health education has been demonstrated through her leadership of agents in developing and updating curriculum, assembling agent teams that work together to obtain significant and positive outcomes and overall guidance in the program development process leading to successful programmatic efforts in the East Region. 

County Extension Agent – Distinguished Career, 21 plus years 

— Tanya Davis, family and community health, Wise County. Davis’ distinguished career has spanned 22 years in Wise County. She began in 1981 as an assistant agent-home economics. From 1986-2003, she was a stay-at-home mom and then a family and consumer sciences teacher. In 2003, Davis welcomed the opportunity to return to AgriLife Extension in Wise County. She is gifted at developing partnerships and recruiting volunteers to become involved in AgriLife Extension programs in a county of over 60,000 residents. Her commitment and dedication to the agency are evidenced by her excellent work ethic, passion for making a difference in the lives of Texans, and utilization of specialists and resources within the agency to develop effective programs.  

— Lyle Zoeller, agriculture and natural resources, Bell County. Zoeller started his AgriLife Extension career in 1993 in Jim Wells County. He also served in Frio County and Coryell County before moving to Bell County. He primarily provides leadership and management in the areas of beef cattle production, row crops and forages, as well as 4-H and the Master Gardener program. He was cited for his exceptional and impactful dedication to both agricultural producers and 4-H youth. Developing programs with passion and purpose, he has coordinated educational events on every aspect of beef cattle production, making a positive difference in the producer’s bottom line. Zoeller says one of the most rewarding things he has done with AgriLife Extension was serving on disaster strike teams and assisting the ranchers in need after Hurricane Ike through Operation No Fences. 

Extension Specialist or Program Director – Distinguished Career, 21 plus years 

— Tony Provin, Ph.D., soil chemist, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Bryan-College Station. Provin started his career in 1996 as an assistant professor, specialist and director of the Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory. Provin has addressed numerous clientele issues in the agronomic, urban and environmental sectors, thereby improving both sustainability and economics for Texans. His program

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