AgEBB-MU CAFNR Extension

David Burton
Civic Communications Specialist
2400 S. Scenic Ave.
Springfield, MO 65807

July 22, 2016

MU Extension Uses Resources to Address Identified
Needs of Immigrant and Refugee Populations in Noel, Mo
Written by Becky Schreiber: Writing Intern, Greene County Extension, PART 1

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — A village called Noel likely conjures up images of Christmas tree farms, and quaint cottages draped with red and green stringed lights, and while Noel's nickname is the "Christmas City," the reality of everyday life for this small town in southwest Missouri is a stark contrast to these holiday pictures. Since the late 1990s, Noel, Mo has received an influx of immigrants and refugees that have radically changed the demographics and needs of the community. In the past couple of years, University of Missouri Extension has identified several opportunities to enrich the growth and development of this unique area, and this effort has taken shape in what is now known as the Noel Project.


Noel has a modest population of fewer than 2000 residents. Current demographics compared with those of twenty years ago show a dramatic shift in the town's diversity. A steady migration beginning with Hispanic immigrants and then followed by Somalian, Myanmar (Burmese) Pacific Islanders and Sudanese, has not only created a more complex culture but has also changed the face of the workforce for Noel's primary employer-Tyson Foods Inc. These unusual circumstances have led to a significant need for support as these new populations try to integrate into life in the Midwest.

Meeting these needs is no small task, and it becomes more intricate when considering the number of the different cultures involved and their motivating factors for immigrating. The Somalis are one example of a refugee population that has fled a country plagued by political corruption, civil unrest, and violence. According to MU Extension Community Development Specialist, Dr. Kathy Macomber, 45 percent of Somalia's population has been displaced, and for those that remain in the country, the average life expectancy is only 44 years. For those that escape the chaos and turmoil of this war-torn country and for other immigrants fleeing similar situations, the challenges they face do not end when they arrive in Noel.

John Hobbs, (now retired) a MU Extension rural development specialist, recognized the important role that MU Extension programs could play in bridging the gap for many of the immigrants in the Noel area. He organized a meeting with Tyson in the spring of 2014 with the hope that they would see MU Extension as a resource for their employees. The initial meeting included Tyson human resource personnel, representatives from the local school district, public health and housing officials, and translators (Tyson employees) for the Somali and Burmese native speakers.


This first meeting was an opportunity for the most pressing needs of the community to be identified and accessed. Many of these needs are necessities, such as the lack of public housing and affordable rentals, and the need for health and nutrition support. Other areas of importance included the need for English as a second language (ESL) and GED classes, knowledge of money management, auto maintenance skills, and emotional support for families, particularly those with teenagers. While it is imperative to address all of these issues, it became evident one need took priority over all others.

Both Tyson and its employees recognized that the most urgent issue was the need for driver's education. Some serious accidents in the area were attributed to immigrant drivers lacking basic driving skills, and not being familiar with U.S. driving rules and regulations, and knowledge of how to drive in winter weather conditions. While MU Extension does not typically offer a driver's education program, serval MU Extension specialists acted as an intermediary by locating a resource that could provide driver's education to the employees who were in need.

Sifting out the most significant obstacles facing Noel's citizens was only the first step in creating a plan that would help. Next, MU Extension specialists had to pinpoint which of their programs could be most useful and in what format to offer them. The result was a combination of 4-H youth, agriculture/rural development/horticulture, nutrition, financial education, and community development programs. In some cases, these programs would be a collaborative effort between MU Extension and other organizations.

MU Extension specialists working to develop these programs for the varied population of Noel soon learned their traditional approach to education would have to be modified. Many Tyson employees work double shifts to support their families here in the U.S., but also to send funds to support love ones that remain in their homeland. The exhaustion from working long hours coupled with a language barrier does not create ideal conditions for learning. To bypass these obstacles, MU Extension specialists entertained the idea of creating blended curriculums that can be delivered in 10-20 minute modules.

Although Tyson does not currently fund any of the MU Extension programming, it does provide classroom space and encourages their employees to take advantage of the classes. Providing education onsite at the Tyson plant is one method for reaching those in need, but other programs involve going out into the community.


Hobbs originally reached out to the Burmese residents of Noel when he began a special garden project in 2014. Patrick Byers, a horticulture specialist with MU Extension in Greene County, originally assisted with the work. Horticulture specialist Robert Balek now leads horticulture efforts that assists Somali refugees (many Burmese) that have been forced to flee their homeland. According to Balek, a repressive military dictatorship has caused the displacement of more than 3.5 million Burmese to the Thai-Burma border, and hundreds of thousands to refugee camps scattered throughout Asia. About 50 Burmese families have relocated to Noel, and that number continues to grow.

These families reside in a series of housing complexes on the outskirts of town. The landlord of these properties helped Balek at the start of the project by providing land, access to water and some of the basic tools needed for the garden project. During the spring of 2014, Balek made 30 contacts with nearly 40 Burmese families during demonstration sessions where he showed techniques for planting, mulching, trellising and weed control, as well as the proper rates for fertilizing and watering.

Hobb's original work established three community vegetable gardens. The practical applications of the gardens are to provide the Burmese population with the skills to cultivate high-quality nutrient-dense food without burdening their household budgets. Beyond these tangible benefits is the hope that these gardens would offer a greater sense of belonging to the Noel community and be a sign of welcome to those who have newly arrived. In this same spirit, Hobbs, along with extension specialists Byers, hosted an event where they served the homemade ice cream to the Burmese residents and got acquainted.

The Burmese Garden Project is an ongoing program. In 2015, the garden project expanded, and some of Pacific Island immigrants have been invited to join the in the efforts to nurture and harvest the gardens. This project is one example of many programs that encourage youth to participate, which is advantageous to the goals MU Extension has for Noel. When children and youth participate in programs developed to help those transitioning between countries, they not only learn vital skills, but they also act as interpreters for older immigrants that are challenged by a language barrier.


Source: Dr. Amy Patillo, (417) 223-4775

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