1:27 p.m., Jan. 5, 2009----Joy Sparks, who serves as the state 4-H coordinator for University of Delaware Cooperative Extension, has received numerous honors in recent months.
Sparks was presented the Perpetual Lighthouse Award, the highest award that a University of Delaware Cooperative Extension employee can receive, then was honored with the Distinguished Service to Ag award from the New Castle County Farm Bureau.
More recently, she received yet another Distinguished Service to Ag award, this time from the Delaware Farm Bureau at its annual dinner in Felton. That evening, she received a proclamation from the Delaware Senate and House of Representatives presented by State Rep. Bethany Hall-Long.
The recent accolades are richly deserved for Sparks. In her 35-year career, she has built Delaware 4-H into a powerhouse.
Last year, the organization reached nearly 70,000 young people, which represents more than 47 percent of the market share of eligible youth in Delaware -- more than twice the percentage of any other state. Nationally, Delaware 4-H is seen as the model for other states to follow.
One of the keys to Joy Sparks' success is that she knows the value of face-to-face interaction. Through the years, she has crisscrossed the state to attend as many 4-H meetings and events as possible. Sussex County 4-H agent Ernie Lopez has seen first-hand the strong -- and innumerable -- relationships that Sparks has developed. He went to lunch with her on his first day as a 4-H agent, which also coincided with the Delaware State Fair.
“It was my first day in my new job in 4-H and here I was on the biggest stage there is at the Delaware State Fair,” recalls Lopez. “I think Joy sensed I was a little overwhelmed so she took me to lunch at the Grange's food area. It took us 20 minutes from the time we entered the booth to the time I took my first bite of chicken because Joy was introducing me to everyone. And I mean everyone, from fair patrons whom she had known for years to the Grange members serving us our meal. It showed me her amazing ability to personally connect with people.”
Joy Sparks is married to Donald L. Sparks, the S. Hallock du Pont Professor and chairperson of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in the University of Delaware's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Don Sparks says that at times he has tried to dissuade his wife from yet another 4-H road trip.
“Most weeks, Joy would spend two or three nights going to meetings with leaders and volunteers and to Delaware 4-H Foundation meetings. There have been many Saturdays and Sundays when she would be involved in a 4-H activity, too,” says Sparks. “I often said to her that in lieu of driving to Dover or Georgetown perhaps she could have a conference call or do the meeting via ITV. She would always say, 'No, I need to be there in person.'”
And more than once, Joy Sparks has cut short a trip abroad to get back in time for a 4-H event, recalls Don Sparks. This is a sacrifice, indeed, for Sparks is a globe-trotting traveler who revels in her experiences in far-flung locales.
Sparks' work ethic really kicks into over-drive at the Delaware State Fair, notes State 4-H Extension Educator Mark Manno, who has worked with her for 29 years.
“Many, many times over the years, Joy will have gone off duty at the fair at 4 o'clock only to show up at closing at 9 or even later,” says Manno. “She must live there, though she claims not to.”
Delaware 4-H will always have its beloved traditions but in many ways it's a very different organization than it was when Sparks first joined, more than three decades ago. Under her leadership, change has been recognized as an avenue for growth.
“Joy isn't wedded to old traditions when they no longer serve a purpose,” notes Manno. “Over the years, she has allowed staff to develop new programs and no one has ever been penalized for failure -- as many programs do fail. As long as you try, that's good.”
Sparks is a proud UD alumna who met her husband as a co-worker in Townsend Hall. Eight years ago, they committed $25,000 to create the Donald L. and Joy G. Sparks Graduate Fellowship in Soil Science. And recently, they established a second endowment to fund a college scholarship for 4-H members.
“We both came from humble backgrounds and we may not have been able to go to college if it had not been for scholarships,”' says Sparks.
Jan Seitz, associate dean and director of University of Delaware Cooperative Extension, says that Sparks helped convince her to come to UD in 2003.
“Prior to coming to UD, I was assistant dean and director of University of Illinois Extension 4-H and knew Joy Sparks as a valued 4-H colleague and a friend,” says Seitz. “Joy was always talking up UD. When the Extension director position became available, she encouraged me to apply. It's been the best move I ever made.”
“As director, I've been fortunate to have strong program leaders throughout UD Extension but before I even got here I knew 4-H was in good hands,” notes Seitz. “Joy is recognized as one of the most outstanding state program leaders for 4-H in the nation. She is an extraordinary leader whose creativity, energy, enthusiasm, and work ethic has resulted in DE 4-H being the envy of the nation.”
Sparks' recent awards join a mantle full of plaques and commendations. She was recognized with one of the first national 4-H Afterschool Awards of Excellence, the Ratledge Family Award for Delaware Public service and the Jim Baker Memorial Award given by the Delaware 4-H Foundation for service to Delaware 4-H.
“I've loved what I've done every day,” says Sparks. “I can't imagine doing anything else.”
Article by Margo McDonough
Photo by Danielle Quigley