Virginia Cooperative Extension: Advocates for the community

Sonja Mitchell, Family and Consumer Sciences agent, explains the rules of the Reality Store to Kappa Leadership League middle and high schoolers to help them learn what it’s like to be an adult — having a job, a family and paying bills. (Photo by Cathy Welch)

It’s not about me as an agent, but about the program, the education and people who need it,” Sonja Mitchell, Family and Consumer Sciences agent in Newport News’ Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) Office, says of her passion.

Mitchell earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from Hampton University and her Masters of Science degree in family life and youth development from North Carolina State University in 2013. After graduation, she returned to Hampton Roads, where she began her work with VCE’s James City County office before transferring to Newport News. She spent her first few years shadowing people, gaining professional development and learning the community. She has created a strong program in the Newport News office over the past four years.

“I’ve grown in confidence as an agent and truly understand what this community needs,” she says. “We survive off of community impact.”

VCE’s mission is to enable people to improve their lives through an educational process that uses scientific knowledge focused on issues and needs. It’s all about Virginians working with Virginians in communities, homes and businesses.

Today, VCE offers more nutrition-based programming with four Family Nutrition Program (FNP) staff members. Now, Mitchell has more capacity to focus on financial literacy. Over the past three years, she trained master financial volunteers. The office partners with THRIVE to train its volunteers to become financial educators.

VCE offers one-on-one coaching and group sessions covering basic budgeting and saving; teaching people how to read their credit report; grocery shopping on a budget; and advanced programs such as how to guard against identity theft.

Simulations are the most popular programs. The Reality Store simulations are for middle/high schoolers to experience what it’s like to be an adult. It teaches the realistic understanding of having a job, a family and paying bills. Students are given a family scenario with a salary. They visit booths around the room featuring housing, rent, a car, car insurance, childcare — all the bills typically paid in a month.

“It is one of the most genuine times when students express comments such as ‘I appreciate my parents doing this because I didn’t know they had to every month,’” Mitchell says.

VCE offers a poverty simulation for adults allowing human services professionals to see what it’s like to live at or below the poverty line.

“We put professionals in the room to be each other’s family and give them a low salary — some homeless, some on disability,” Mitchell says. “It raises their sensitivity to the clientele or employees they serve and the stress they’re coming in with.”

Newport News’ VCE is served by Lois Graywolf, city administrative assistant; Lishka Banda, state administrative assistant; Tammy Coker, senior nutrition program assistant; Jacqueline Simmons, FNP program assistant; Jeffrey Williams, agriculture program assistant; Jessica Soffee, 4-H program associate; Kelsey Kennedy, FCS SNAP educator; and Alesia Blizzard, FNP adult assistant. It trains master financial volunteers, master food volunteers and master gardeners.

Mitchell’s mother taught her about working with people. “As a real estate broker, she’s demonstrated the ability to get personal with people and help them start a new track in life,” she says.

“I love seeing the changes in a community,” Mitchell says. “What we do not only educates the community, but provides education to me as well.”

Mitchell also enjoys the chance to build relationships in the community.

“The biggest thing is seeing people go from point A to point B and knowing that you had a part in that,” she says.

Newport News’ culture dictates the programs VCE offers. Community surveys dictate what they offer.

“Everything we offer is based on community need,” she says. “We try to be sensitive to whatever culture we walk into, whether it’s a family or a neighborhood.”

Mitchell and her staff believe in partnering together, working with other agencies to reach this goal.

“We are successful when we meet the community’s needs,” Mitchell says. “We write impact statements annually that detail instances where we saw somebody’s knowledge, behavior or skill change.”

In her free time, Mitchell has a YouTube channel called “Simply Sonja.” “I share plus-size fashion and a Christian encouragement series every Tuesday with more than 1,000 subscribers.”

Virginia Cooperative Extension, City of Newport News Office
Address: 739 Thimble Shoals Blvd., Ste. 1009, Newport News, VA 23606
Phone: 757-591-4838
Contact: Sonja Mitchell, MS, unit coordinator and Family and Consumer Sciences agent

About Cathy Welch 71 Articles
Cathy Welch is a Hampton Roads-based writer, photographer and book editor. She says her life is an eclectic mix of career and FAMILY. She earned our Bachelors degree in business administration at Christopher Newport University, minoring in Spanish. Her career has been full- and part-time as an administrator, an engineering assistant, a bookseller, a merchandiser, a naval photography layout assistant, an office manager, a grant writer and a human resource manager, all giving her experiences that feed her writing. She fosters pups and does what she can to bless those who are in need, whether human or canine. She can be reached at 757-870-0768 or at

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