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Knight recognized for welfare reform work

By John Reed, Media Relations

UNH Cooperative Extension professor and specialist Suzann Knight received the Maynard and Audrey Heckel Fellowship for outstanding Cooperative Extension educators for her work in founding the N.H. Lifeskills for Employment, Achievement, and Purpose (LEAP) program.

Knight developed the LEAP curriculum in 1997 as an answer to welfare reform legislation. LEAP has helped 40 percent of its participants land jobs and get off public assistance. Since 1997 LEAP has grown from two full-time instructors to 15, and has enrolled nearly 2,000 participants.

“There was a lot of talk about welfare reform in Washington, D.C., prior to 1996 and I felt that Cooperative Extension had a role to play,” Knight said.

LEAP works with the New Hampshire Employment Program (NHEP) to develop life skills for individuals on public assistance with the goal of helping them make the transition into the workforce. “Many people on public assistance have serious issues in their personal lives, and it can be incredibly difficult to make the transition to work. LEAP teaches them how to manage the problems and issues in their lives,” Knight said.

The program immerses participants in a 12-day, six-hour per day course that teaches interpersonal skills such as conflict, anger and stress management. It also covers developing life skills such as time management, decision making and problem solving techniques necessary for participants to put their lives in order.

The emotional support provided by fellow participants and instructors is crucial to helping participants turn their lives around, Knight said.

This support group becomes so tight so fast that, “by the end of the program students don’t want it to end,” Knight added.
LEAP places the same demands of punctuality and self-reliance that are found in the workplace. “Participants need to be on time. They need to arrange for childcare on their own, and they also need to take care of their own transportation. They need to learn to live in a routine,” she said.

In addition to the standard curriculum, coordinators work with each participant on a specific area where they need to improve such as housing or time management.

Once participants have completed the program, their instructor makes a recommendation to NHEP on whether each participant is ready to enter the workforce or should participate in other NHEP programs such as counseling or furthering their education.

Knight gives credit for the award to everyone involved with LEAP in Cooperative Extension and NHEP. “I feel strongly that this is a programmatic award. If all of us weren’t working together, the program wouldn’t have gone anywhere,” she said.

The impact LEAP has had on the lives of its participants has been tremendous.

“I found I could get organized with my life. I have a great job and my son is doing well. Together we’re terrific. We now own our own home and have a new vehicle. LEAP got me to see I could make good decisions for me and my son,” one LEAP alumnus said.

According to another alumnus, “My last hope was LEAP and it lead to a whole new life. I don’t even remember who I used to be.”
Knight is sharing the fellowship money with the program coordinators to pay for a curriculum retreat focused on improving the program.


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