MSU Extension staff members receive Meritorious Service Awards

Nine outstanding Michigan State University Extension staff members were honored with Meritorious Service Awards at the annual Fall Extension Conference Sept. 28.

Michigan State University (MSU) Extension awarded Meritorious Service Awards to Kendra Gibson, Nicole Persing-Wethington, Lori Warchuck, Jacob DeDecker, Laurie Rivetto, Vivian WashingtonRebecca Sova, Mindy Tape, and Phyllis J. Higman during the annual Fall Extension Conference Sept. 28.

The Meritorious Service Award honors individuals who have supported the mission, program, and professional staff of MSU Extension in an outstanding manner. Nominees must possess the highest standards of integrity and character to positively reflect and enhance the reputation of MSU Extension. This state award is designed to pay tribute to the many staff members in our system who, over time, have shown support for the mission, program and professional staff of MSU Extension.


Kendra Gibson receives Community Nutrition Instructor Meritorious Service Award

Kendra Gibson, MSU Extension community nutrition instructor, provided assistance, knowledge, and experience during the development of the Lakeshore Food Club (LFC) in Mason County, a grocery storestyle food resource for low-income families. Kendra’s generous spirit, warm personality, and technical expertise greatly added to the sense of community at the food club. Taste a Rainbow was a youth summer gardening and nutrition series located at LFC in 2019. When the COVID-19 pandemic occurred in March 2020, concern rose for the fate of the garden as well as its related social connections. Kendra helped the program switch to a virtual offering and rebranded it as Deep Roots, which has expanded to include more partners with a community-wide presence. Throughout the summer lockdown, this program kept people connected through a shared interest in growing and preparing healthy food.

Kendra assisted Ludington High School through implementing Smarter Lunchroom initiatives. This also led the school to receive recognition with the 2020 Michigan School Wellness Gold Award. While working to implement menu changes, Kendra’s kind spirit encouraged even the most reluctant teenagers to evaluate how they could make healthier choices.

In Baldwin, she was part of a project bringing multiple funders and volunteers to build accessible, raised beds to Grand Oaks Nursing Home residents. She provided community coaching in Lake County to create the Lake County Food Policy Council and assisted the Bread of Life Pantry to transition to a MyChoice pantry. One result of this project is a toolkit that is now available nationwide.

She has been invited to share the programs and work she has done locally in Lake and Mason counties at national and state conferences. Her consistent and committed presence in the community has led MSU Extension to be the partner of choice in Mason County. She is a community connector, bringing people and partners together to be part of many community projects. Kendra Gibson’s passion, knowledge, and positivity have made a lasting impact on individuals and families in Mason County.

Nicole Persing-Wethington receives Program Instructor Meritorious Service Award  

Nicole Persing-Wethington, Michigan State University Extension health and nutrition program instructor, has been an integral part of the Health Work Team. Nicole’s expertise and skills with technology are essential to the success of the team’s virtual programming.

Nicole played a huge role in re-launching the virtual Wellness Initiative for Senior Education (WISE) program and continues to make updates to ensure our participants are getting the best experience. She redesigned all of the RELAX handouts into fillable PDFs to make them accessible to participants without access to printers. She has developed pictorial slides to help participants new to Zoom. These slides have been shared both inside and outside MSU Extension with community and statewide partners.

Nicole’s breadth of programming capabilities makes her an asset to Extension and the communities she serves. She co-facilitates several programs with community partners and has continued her co-facilitation even during the pandemic. She is well-versed in her community’s needs and is quick to offer MSU Extension programs and materials to partners statewide.

She was already a strong program instructor, but her technology skills allowed her to adapt quickly and thrive in the pandemic programming atmosphere. She shared her expertise with the entire work team, working to provide tech support, instructional videos and resources, and to answer questions her teammates had regarding remote programming. Whether as lead teacher or tech support, Nicole always made the programs enjoyable, interactive, and smooth.

She has opened doors for building new partnerships through securing service agreements with the Michigan Library Association and Barton Malow to provide mindfulness classes for their worksite wellness programs. In addition, she helped organize a co-presented program with the Michigan Alzheimer’s Association, blending MSU Extension’s mindfulness programs with their caregiver education programs.

Patient with staff and participants, she is willing to help with any technology issues. Her professionalism and compassionate, thoughtful, fair, innovative, creative, humble, and composed qualities are seen in the way she interacts with those inside and outside of MSU Extension. We celebrate Nicole Persing-Wethington with the Meritorious Service Award.


Warchuck MSA
Lori Warchuck receives 4-H Program Instructor Meritorious Service Award

Lori Warchuck, Michigan State University Extension St. Clair County 4-H program coordinator, is instrumental in maintaining one of Michigan’s largest county 4-H programs. She manages more than 300 volunteers who help facilitate the program. Lori’s relationship with volunteers enables the program to serve over 1,000 youth in 4-H clubs and contributes toward the 6,000 additional youth reached annually in the county. She approaches her work with volunteers as a leader and a teammate, creating a positive and inspiring atmosphere.

The county fair board hosted a virtual showcase in 2020. With Lori’s help and support, the virtual showcase engaged more than 300 participants. Beyond providing an opportunity to exhibit in this format, Lori engaged participants throughout the week with educational offerings and Facebook Live posts. She partnered with the fair board to secure funding for a part-time staff member who provided a variety of educational activities to attract new audiences to the program.

When MSU pivoted to virtual programming, Lori was creative in employing multiple approaches to keep 4-H members engaged and grow her audience. These included Zoom presentations, educational kits, Kahoot games, and Facebook Live videos.

The 4-H Council is active in supporting the program through fundraising, leader training, and youth educational programs. Lori works with the 4-H Council to plan and execute an annual auction to provide financial support to the county program. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, she helped the committee pivot their 2021 auction to an online format. The 2021 auction was a success, and the 4-H Council opted to donate 50% of the profits from the auction to the food pantry this year. She also worked with the 4-Council to recognize volunteers through a virtual recognition celebration. 

Lori Warchuck’s leadership in St. Clair County drives the 4-H program to be successful year after year.

DeDecker MSA

Jacob DeDecker receives Administrative Leadership Meritorious Service Award


Jacob (“Jake”) DeDecker, state leader of Michigan 4-H Youth Development and associate director of Michigan State University Extension Children and Youth Institute, has consistently served as a strong leader and advocate. During the transition from face-to-face to virtual program delivery due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he supported the development of action teams, including one focused on providing a virtual showcase and auction to support county and state fairs.

Jake has successfully managed difficult conversations and provided a consistent and thoughtful approach to the transitions faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has masterfully communicated with staff and served as a key point of contact with volunteers and families to ensure they felt heard and supported. He has also advocated and voiced the impacts of the pivot to virtual education to key legislative stakeholders.

Over his tenure, he has secured several key resources and partners to support the growth of Michigan 4-H. He has developed strong relationships with key 4-H donors and has provided consistent support to the Michigan 4-H Foundation. His work has extended internationally, developing key partners to bring 4-H to other countries, and he has continued to position Michigan 4-H as a leader nationally.

Jake’s humble leadership style enabled him to build bridges and maintain relationships. He has worked to demonstrate clear communication, vision, empathy, accountability, and gratitude to staff, participants, and partners. He understands the value of 4-H partnerships in communities and has dedicated himself to maintaining and strengthening those partnerships while at the same time supporting staff and organizational objectives.

While Jake DeDecker has provided many significant contributions, his ability to maintain a consistent and supportive approach has been key to his success and the success of 4-H and the Children and Youth Institute, making him deserving of the Meritorious Service Award.

Rivetto MSA
Laurie Rivetto receives Extension Educator Meritorious Service Award

Laurie Rivetto, Michigan State University Extension educator, has championed LGBTQIA+ and inclusion of all youth since 2017. To support these efforts, she co-developed the Guide for Inclusion of Individuals of All Gender Identities, Gender Expressions, Sexual Orientations and Sexes, delivered statewide in February 2021.

Her inquisitive approach to the service of youth and community has guided Laurie in the development of several well-respected and widely used curricula. In addition, Laurie has designed, facilitated, and taught using online platforms across counties. Topics included, but were not limited to, careers, youth business, 4-H market animal projects, horse science, photography, communication, and 4-H finances.

She co-led Action Team #2, created in response to the need to provide virtual programming for Michigan residents, families, and youth caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The team created criteria and a checklist for effective programs and program fidelity including best practices for program design using a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens and providing recommendations for website and social media promotion and marketing. Laurie supervised the creation of more than 10 documents including a Roadmap to Virtual Programs for 4-H staff and a general version for all MSU Extension staff, as well as for the public to use. She directed the development of trainings and materials for volunteers and staff including on-demand videos.

Laurie has cultivated numerous partnerships, among them school districts, library systems, city governments, state agencies, and nonprofits. She has secured or been on teams that brought in over $100,000 in grant funding during her MSU Extension career.

Laurie excels in planning and program implementation. Her organizational and partnering skills allowed her to reach approximately 5,000 youth participants in the 2019 reporting year. She works to hold MSU Extension accountable to the residents it serves and to help create paths to belonging in 4-H for all. She continues to strive for excellence in programming, viewing our work through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion, so MSU Extension fulfills its mission, making Laurie Rivetto’s service worthy of the meritorious distinction.

Washington MSA
Vivian Washington receives Extension Educator Meritorious Service Award

Vivian Washington has been a dynamic Michigan State University Extension children and youth educator, serving her local community.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while some staff struggled, Vivian and her colleagues within her team thrived and quickly pivoted to the online learning environment. As team co-chair, Vivian provided leadership in helping her team shift to respond to the growing needs of parents during the pandemic. They coordinated daily social media messages, providing families and caregivers important media messages, and supportive webinars to assist families.

Vivian has also exhibited success as an educator this past year. Due to her quick efforts, she conducted 46 programs, reaching 2,136 participants, featuring programming in multiple modalities, includinseveral one-time parenting education programming, caregiver education, and parenting education series. In addition, she supported social media posts (including managing the Thinking Thursday posts for the Child and Family Development team each week). This weekly Facebook post has an amazing reach.

Her efforts provided needed professional development to the child care industry in a virtual setting that allowed providers to maintain their state-required development hours. She also provided parents important educational best practices in a variety of trainings.

Vivian has also led in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion. With a colleague, she has co-developed Including All of Us, which is a training focused on early childhood educators to reduce implicit bias in the classroom. This cutting-edge training will be important as Extension continues to infuse this topic into programming efforts.

Vivian Washington has demonstrated meritorious service through all of these efforts. 

Sova MSA
Rebecca Sova receives Support Staff Off-Campus Meritorious Service Award

Rebecca Sova has made significant contributions through her work with Michigan State University Extension as support staff for both the MSU Extension Roscommon County office and the Roscommon County Gypsy Moth Suppression Program.

As a result of Rebecca’s work, the capacity and attendance for programs in the county have greatly improved. She efficiently addresses the day-to-day operations yet still finds time to make outstanding contributions. When her position expanded to include support for the gypsy moth program in January 2020, she took the time to self-educate and provide professional assistance. She works to gain visibility for both MSU Extension and the gypsy moth program in Roscommon County. Her past career as a teacher with proofreading and editing skills, and expertise with marketing and design helps to increase the visibility and credibility of both initiatives in our local communities. Despite COVID-19 pandemic restrictions that limited in-person appearances, her work ensured visibility through social media, articles, flyers, and our presence at Board of Commissioner virtual meetings. 

One of her key accomplishments was to inventory all community-related entities and track this information so these new potential partners and audience members can be reached. This has led to a surge in new relationships where MSU Extension remains visible. She recognizes and, in some cases, facilitates new partnership and audience opportunities. She also sends weekly communications to the local newspapers and has arranged for MSU Extension staff to make regular radio talk show appearances.

One of her most significant impacts has been promoting awareness about chemical-free landowner controls for gypsy moth. Rebecca created a “Gypsy Moth Management Strategy” flyer frequently distributed throughout gypsy moth-infested counties in Michigan. The well-designed resource provides a comprehensive, research-based list of strategies for landowners to employ to suppress gypsy moth populations on their own properties.

For her outstanding contributions to both the Roscommon County office and the gypsy moth program, Rebecca Sova is honored with the Meritorious Service Award.

Tape MSA

Mindy Tape receives Support Staff On-Campus Meritorious Service Award

Mindy Tape, Michigan State University Extension communications manager, is a gifted communicator, using her talents to enhance the visibility of Extension programming for 11 years. Mindy has provided communication and marketing support to hundreds of educators. Her strategic approach has put staff at the forefront of digital platforms, consistently elevating their work. Mindy also supports broad organizational efforts such as overseeing the growth of the MSU Extension News Digests and serving as lead strategist for the Extension website.

Her counsel and expertise have been pivotal in helping staff navigate challenges including the 2015 avian influenza outbreak, the launch of Ag Innovation Day, the delayed planting crisis in 2019, and the N95 mask decontamination website last year. Mindy has also pulled double duty for the past 15 months, serving as communications manager for the Community, Food and Environment Institute as well as the Agriculture and Agribusiness Institute.

She helps to synergize efforts for shared resources, outreach efforts, and expertise throughout the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. She has also leveraged her vast personal and professional networks to support Extension, using her connections with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and commodity groups to support the Farm Stress Management program, to include MSU Extension in Michigan Ag Month, and more.

Her out-of-the-box thinking has led to vast improvements in dotCMS expert profiles, a streamlined impact report process, and the expanded use of course content. She developed a marketing checklist for staff promotion of programs and events, resulting in many successfully attended Extension offerings.

The role Mindy plays in helping Extension educators to promote their programs is critically important to their ability to reach Michiganders statewide. Her strategic direction and committed efforts are pivotal to ensuring Extension education is delivered to those who need it most, when they need it most. Mindy Tape’s years of work and dedication, in particular her service in dual roles the past 15 months, is deserving of the Meritorious Service Award.

Higman MSA
Phyllis J. Higman receives Academic Specialist Meritorious Service Award

Phyllis J. Higman, senior conservation scientist and botany heritage lead, provides leadership for Michigan Natural Features Inventory (MNFI). Her programming includes conservation education, invasive species management, and rare plant species conservation.

She has developed and delivered classroom and field-based training sessions on Michigan’s rare ecosystems. In doing so, she has mastered the art of communicating complex scientific information to a diverse audience with clarity and passion, engaging them with her wit, passion, and intellect. Her comprehensive knowledge was attained through tireless study and slogging through swamps, marshes, and forests, locating and documenting occurrences of rare plants.

Her success as a conservation scientist is linked to partnerships developed and nurtured over two decades with local, state, federal, and tribal agencies; land conservancies; academics; and conservation organizations. She motivates thousands of partners, colleagues, and residents to act to protect our natural heritage.

Since MNFI joined Michigan State University Extension in 2000, she secured over $9.1 million in grant funding. This funding and her leadership have been critical to MNFI’s mission.

She has led MNFI’s collaboration with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Forest Resources Division and the U.S. Forest Service to conduct rare plant surveys on the Huron-Manistee National
Forest. She was a founding member of the Michigan Invasive Species Coalition, organized to coordinate and collaborate on invasive species initiatives across the state. Her seminal work on invasive species has resulted in an early detection and response strategy, a framework and field guides for addressing invasive plants, support for an online or phone app system for mapping invasive occurrences (Midwest Invasive Species Information Network, or MISIN), current distribution maps, best treatment strategies, and a network of partners statewide. She was essential to the development and adoption of the MISIN. She has played a critical role in the conception, development, and expansion of the Conservation Stewards Program.

Phyllis Higman works for the conservation of Michigan’s biodiversity while being an effective and empathetic colleague, mentor, and collaborator lending meritorious service to MNFI and Extension.

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