Johanna Hicks, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service family and community health agent for Hopkins County, announced her retirement after nearly three decades serving East Texas residents. She officially retires Jan. 31.
Hicks spent 27 years with AgriLife Extension over two stints during her professional career. She started her AgriLife Extension career in 1984 as the family and community health agent in Hopkins County before moving to Stephenville in 1990.
She spent the next six years teaching at Tarleton State University and serving as a children’s director in her church. Hicks returned to work as a family and community health agent in Hopkins County in 2002.
Over the course of her career, Hicks educated the public in a range of disciplines designed to improve quality of life. She taught programs including youth nutrition and exercise curriculum, 4-H and adult sewing, marriage education and a series to help people navigate diabetes and other health issues.
But it was a personal challenge that put her on her career course.
Hicks discovered her passion for diabetes education in 1995 when her son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a child. The challenges of helping her son manage the disease spurred her commitment to helping others improve their health and quality of life.
“We were doing seven finger pricks and four insulin injections every day,” she said. “Now he wears an insulin pump and glucose monitor as well as a techy watch that communicates with the monitor. He is an example that a serious disease with no cure can be managed, and I try to extend that hope and motivation to our clients.”
Serving the people of Hopkins County
Diabetes education, maintenance and prevention was a personal calling, but Hicks expanded and implemented a variety of programs designed to improve lives and combat chronic diseases. As part of that effort, she helped identify community health issues and spearhead initiatives to encourage healthier choices in families and individuals of all ages.
AgriLife Extension’s Do Well, Be Well with Diabetes and Cooking with Diabetes, along with other programs, have a special place in her heart, she said.
Hicks also taught broader programs like Better Living for Texans that provide quality information about diet and exercise meant to guide clients toward healthier lifestyles. For example, the 15-20-minute Walk and Talk sessions focused on nutrition education segments for Head Start parents followed by a group walk.
“There is a lot of camaraderie that develops among clients and parents when they come together and see the value in the activities and doing them together,” she said. “Parents from those sessions continue to walk together. Reaching kids when they are developing habits is an important part of what we do, but seeing parents take part and see the benefit in their lives is a bonus.”
Many of the programs are designed to mitigate chronic diseases in adults but can also be focused toward establishing healthy habits in youth.
One youth program implemented through the Community Health/Wellness Alliance has been a very popular youth program, she said. An annual four-week summer day camp is designed to help children grades 1-5 develop better eating and physical activity habits and increase their awareness of sun, water and stranger safety.
Parents have indicated that programming stressing the importance of eating breakfast, drinking water and avoiding sugary beverages are changing their child’s habits and influencing their own.
“I’ve run into parents who will tell me, ‘I don’t know what you are doing but it is working,’” she said. “And now their child wants to visit the produce section at the grocery store. Those types of interactions are always a blessing.”
Hicks also taught three-day sewing workshops that teach youth and adults the basics of sewing and quilt-making. She has also provided an annual 4-H Sewing Fun Day workshop for 4-H members focused on make-and-take projects. In 2022, she provided bandanas for students to complete quilts and pillows.
She also worked with adults, retirees and senior residents through a range of health- and activity-related programs. And, under her leadership, participation in AgriLife Extension’s eight-week Walk Across Texas program has been a community-wide success.
Hicks said she received feedback from married couples who participated in the agency’s Twogether in Texas program which delivers pre-marriage advice and counseling designed to help couples build and maintain a strong relationship.
A key part of Hicks’ approach is to provide engaging programs suited to the community she serves whether it is diet, exercise or life-skill related.
“It is interesting and rewarding to get that feedback from people while I’m in the grocery store or at a restaurant,” she said. “As Extension educators, we often wonder if we’re making a difference in this career, and it reinforces that what we are doing does matter for individuals and families.”
Career longevity, success by following passion
Angela Burkham, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension executive associate director, credited Hicks’ career longevity and success to her passion for the work and commitment to making people’s lives better. Burkham said Hicks’ career should inspire AgriLife Extension agents and human sciences students looking to enter the field.
Hicks is an inspiration because immediate changes are rare when it comes to improving people’s lives and impacting communities, Burkham said. Positive changes unfold through sustained focus and effort, and Hicks’ success was built day by day helping people take incremental steps toward a healthier, happier life.
“Johanna’s career shows what can happen when you commit to a discipline that compliments your desire to help others,” she said. “Her longevity and her success helping people overcome chronic diseases or form lifestyle habits and find productive, fulfilling activities are proof she found a career that allowed her to share her passion.”
Hicks said her work would not be possible without her colleagues and a committed group of Master Wellness volunteers who contributed 1,500 hours last year and received multiple national awards for their service.
“I have to brag on the volunteers because they are consistently head and shoulders above the rest of the state,” she said. “We’ve formed a close bond even outside AgriLife Extension, and I am very proud of what they have provided to the community.”
She also expressed her thanks for support from local leaders and organizations, from the Commissioners Court and city of Sulphur Springs to the hospital, Chamber of Commerce, churches and other community-focused groups.
Hicks said she will continue to help with some long-standing annual programs, including the Christmas Joys Holiday Program, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. She looks forward to watching another agent take over the AgriLife Extension program and inject their own passion into helping the people of Hopkins County.
She also looks forward to spending time with her six grandchildren, traveling and continuing her hobbies.
“I went from zero to six grandkids in three years,” she said. “I’ve been tinkering with the idea of writing a book based on the challenges and successes of dealing with my son’s diabetes and have the basic ideas sketched out. But quilting, reading, travel and grandkids – there is plenty to keep me busy.”