Karen Lynn Poff, MPA, AFC® has served as a Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Agent with Virginia Cooperative Extension since 1987. Following the economic downturn in 2008, she launched the Northern Shenandoah Valley Financial Education Program to help individuals and families learn to manage their finances effectively. Since then, she has trained over 120 volunteers to provide financial education throughout the five-county area she serves.

AFCPE: When someone asks what you do, what do you say?

Karen: My favorite answer for this is “I teach people to fish.” All across this country, there are fantastic programs that provide financial assistance for individuals and families who are struggling. Those programs are much-needed and provide important support through difficult times. But no amount of funding can permanently improve the quality of people’s lives without financial education. Even people who win millions of dollars in the lottery can only ultimately sustain self-sufficiency if they know how to manage that money. That’s why I am passionate about helping people learn to make the most of their financial resources!

AFCPE: You’ve been an Extension Agent for more than 30 years. What led you to this career and/or what are you most proud of?

Karen: As long as I can remember, I’ve had the desire to help people. Thankfully, when in my senior year of college, I decided not to become a teacher, my mother suggested that I try an internship with Extension. Since I had grown up in an urban area, Extension was completely unfamiliar to me – but it ended up being a perfect match!

AFCPE: What do you enjoy most about this work?

Karen: One of my favorite things about this job is that it is constantly changing. Extension exists to bring the research from the nation’s land-grant universities into communities across the country to improve the quality of life for the people we serve. The needs and issues we address change over time, as do the research base, strategies, and resources we use to address them. Every few weeks, I get a question I’ve never heard before, which gives me the opportunity to learn something new myself and refine my skills. One thing is certain about this job – it is never boring!

AFCPE: What advice would you give to someone looking to work for Extension?

Karen: In most states, the position of Extension Agent will require a Master’s Degree, either prior to employment or within the first few years. In addition to a passion for education, qualities that will serve a future Extension professional well include creativity; problem-solving skills; the ability to work with people of all ages and from all backgrounds, cultures, and circumstances; humility; compassion; intrinsic motivation; and commitment to serving. It is not a career for the faint of heart, but the rewards far outweigh the challenges. Seeing people grow and lives changed is the ultimate success!

AFCPE: In your work, what’s got you most excited right now?

Karen: I recently developed financial lesson kits for volunteers to use with limited-resource audiences. The lessons communicate financial concepts through the experiential learning model, primarily using interactive methods instead of presentations. I have been amazed at the positive response of the participants! Some of the evaluation comments have included, “Goals that are on paper are easier to accomplish;” “Have an emergency fund savings and it doesn’t have to be high amounts;” and “Working on paying off debt a little at a time with a plan makes it possible.” I enjoyed sharing the resources with my colleagues through a presentation at the 2018 AFCPE Symposium and look forward to sharing them at the 2019 NEAFCS Annual Session.

AFCPE: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Karen: I love to spend time with my husband, my son and his wife, and my daughter. I also enjoy Bible study, teaching Sunday School, volunteering with community organizations, and attending Southern Gospel music concerts.

Karen Answers the Friday 5:

  1. My Why: To serve others and make a difference.
  1. My Favorite Quote: I can’t decide between my top two, so I’m sharing both:

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” ~Chinese Proverb

“If you were graduated yesterday and you have learned nothing today, you will be uneducated tomorrow.” ~Author Unknown

  1. My Hero: Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior. With Him, all things are possible. Mark 9:23
  1. My Favorite Personal Finance Resource: The Cooperative Extension System has a little-known secret: extension.org/search. There you can search all of the Extension resources produced from states all across the nation in one place! When I am searching for something and I can’t find it in the usual places, I can almost always find it there.
  1. My Best Advice:
  • For someone starting the journey to financial well-being: “Start where you are and start TODAY!”

    So many people don’t get started on the journey because they are waiting until the timing is right. They think that they don’t have ‘enough’ money to save or begin paying down debt. Or they feel they won’t ever be able to meet the recommendation to save a certain percentage of their income or have a certain dollar amount in their emergency savings. Instead of being overwhelmed by all there is to accomplish, focus on one thing you can do today. Can you track all of your expenses to find out where your money is going? Can you put $5 into a savings account each payday? Can you pick your smallest bill and pay $5 extra on the principle this month? Just pick one thing and do it! After that habit is established, add another one. Little by little, you will find yourself further along the path to financial well-being. Instead of getting discouraged that you have only taken a couple of steps down the path, celebrate the fact that you are further on your journey than before you began. The key is taking that first step!

  • For a new professional entering the field: “Build relationships!”

    People will only learn from you to the extent that they feel cared about and respected. And you can’t learn and grow yourself without making connections with those around you. Whenever I meet a new person, I try to find common ground that can bring us together. Seeking to understand the other person’s needs and interests first goes a long way toward developing a bond that opens new horizons for both of you.

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2 responses to “#FridayFollow: Teaching People to Fish”

  1. I’m honored to have met you and for having been instructed by you recently, Karen. Your answers are very on target and extremely well stated. I love your philosophy. You’ve encouraged me just by being who you are.. Looking forward to working more with you and the extension service.

  2. Just- wow. Your passion came across to eloquently, and I love what you had to say about Extension, and your mantra. Proud to know you. Extension is very lucky to have you working for them, and for our community. Waita go Karen!

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