There are in the neighborhood of 1,400 volunteers working, helping, contributing, and giving their time and energies to the Chicago Botanic Garden. This fact about the Garden amazes me every time I hear it.
Isn’t that astounding?
I began at the Garden as a volunteer, too, so this Thanksgiving, I wanted to talk to a few others to find out when, where, how, and why they volunteer.
Suffice to say that I met some awesome people. It’s a pleasure to tell their stories—and to honor them in this season of giving thanks.
Volunteers Can Connect
Five years ago, Jack Kreitinger bought his first ticket to Wonderland Express—and promptly fell in love with the show. An architect by trade, “I wanted to build those little houses out of bark,” he laughs. Instead, he attended that year’s Volunteer Fair and signed up to become a guide for the walking tour program. (Mark your calendar: our next Volunteer Fair is Sunday and Monday, March 1 and 2, from 1 to 3 p.m. in the Regenstein Center.)
Jack’s Favorite Getaway
Here, Jack gives a walking tour; he knows all the best spots in the Garden. He loves the viewing area at the top of the hill in the Sensory Garden, “where you can look through the tops of the trees down at the water. Someday I hope to buy a tree and donate it to be planted as part of that view.”
For Jack, volunteering is about making connections with other people. “Gardeners are the coolest people on earth,” he says. “I’ve met such interesting people from all over the world and, as a tour guide, I can convey how much I love the Garden and why they should love it, too.” Jack’s natural communication and leadership skills have transformed the Walking Tour Guides team as well: he’s a volunteer team leader.
A committed time slot works well for Jack: Thursday mornings find him leading a 45-minute tour from the Crescent Garden through the Heritage Garden, Bonsai Collection, Circle Garden, Buehler Enabling Garden, English Walled Garden, and Krasberg Rose Garden; a second tour lasts a little longer since it’s open-ended.
“It grounds me in nature,” Jack explains, “since I get to see the changes in the gardens week by week, spring through fall.” Between his regular schedule, VIP tours, and special events (he takes special request tours!), Jack estimates that he’s hosted 1,500 people on tour in his five years as a volunteer.
“I get more out of it than I give,” he says. We respectfully and thankfully disagree.
Volunteers Can Specialize
Eight years ago, Ann Stevens took her first course in beekeeping. Seven years ago, the Regenstein Fruit & Vegetable Garden purchased eight new beehives and needed a beekeeper. It was a perfect match.
Ann’s Favorite View
Ann loves seeing the beehives nestled into the apple trees from across the water at the Esplanade. “It reminds me of the big picture: what the bees do for us, how they teach us about community, about working hard to benefit each other, all in an organized and logical way.”
Six years of volunteer beekeeping later, Ann does the math:
- 50,000 bees at the end of each summer
- x eight beehives
- x six years
- = 2,400,000 bees
That’s a lot of beekeeping. And Ann’s work is a great example of the specialized roles of some volunteers at the Garden.
“I love the freedom of it,” Ann says. “It’s a job I can go to when the weather’s right for the bees. I love the seasonality of it: starting new hives, getting them settled, working through the seasons.”
Ann speaks eloquently about working with bees. “I learn new things from them every year. Even if hives are side by side, the results in each are different. You have to adjust, nurture, and give them your best, but you can’t control it all. There are things that are bigger than us, and I get to experience that through the bees.”
Like every volunteer that I had the pleasure of interviewing, Ann also spoke glowingly about the visitors she interacts with at the Fruit & Vegetable Garden. “It’s so beautiful to see so many different people: different ages, different languages being spoken, young couples, families teaching kids to be respectful of the garden. There’s an international feeling at the Garden, and I get to be part of that. I’m so grateful.”
We’re grateful, too, Ann.
Volunteers Can Contribute
First things first: Eileen Sirkin already had a Ph.D. in microbiology and a long-time family membership at the Garden before she became a volunteer.
Eileen’s Favorite Place
“The Butterflies & Blooms house in peak season is the happiest place at the Garden,” Eileen says with a smile. “The butterflies are all flying, and people come dressed in butterfly T-shirts and butterfly jewelry…some stay for hours, and some come back week after week. They all sigh with happiness.”
Ten years ago, she was ready to volunteer and to return to the field of science. Initially, she volunteered as a Plants of Concern citizen scientist (check it out here). When Dr. Jeremie Fant arrived at the Garden as a conservation scientist, she became a volunteer technician in the Molecular Ecology Lab—and has been there ever since.
“It’s like CSI for plants,” Eileen explains when asked about her lab work. Her assignments are wildly interesting (like most science!): her early work with Dr. Fant involved the selection of seagrass species to repopulate a section of Chicago’s Rainbow Beach; her current project involves the Jerusalem Botanic Garden and examines the DNA of Iris vartanii, a rare native that grows only in Israel.
Coworkers and volunteers are important to Eileen. “These are down-to-earth types of people, who love the natural world,” Eileen says. “There’s a lot of fellowship here.”
Also important is the sense of giving back and contributing to a larger cause. “The Garden saw something in me and gave me the opportunity to reactivate what was dormant—I’m grateful for the chance to return to science,” Eileen says at the end of our conversation. “I can’t leave this place. I love it.”
We’re so grateful for your contribution, Eileen.
Volunteers Can Influence
Carmen’s Favorite Spot
Carmen’s favorite? No contest: the “pepper pots” or viewing areas in the English Walled Garden, taking in the view across the water.
After 40 years as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools—teaching Spanish to kids little and big—Carmen Reyes had earned her retirement.
But after just six months, she missed the kids. And she missed teaching. So she turned to the Garden—a place that she already knew well from many summer visits—and she signed up as a greeter. When Judy Cashen, the ever-alert director, volunteer administration and engagement, asked her to help out in the education area, she jumped at the chance.
As an assistant for the school field trip programs, Carmen sets up for the classes that arrive, assists the team leaders, and does some presentations herself (her engaging approach to the subject of companion plants is always popular).
Carmen especially likes working with kids grades K through 8. “They’re wide-eyed, and they want more information,” she says. “Any bit of information that you offer is new to them.” Her bilingual skills are constantly in demand, and she often finds herself welcoming kids on field trips from her former employer, the Chicago Public Schools.
The Garden itself is a powerful draw. “You can’t beat the setting,” Carmen remarks. “And regardless of the time of year, there’s always something beautiful to see, something good for the soul. I’m thankful for the people who make it so beautiful and welcoming. It makes me feel like part of the family at the Garden.”
Thank you for investing in the next generation, Carmen.
Volunteers Have Fun
Carolyn’s Favorite Walk
Carolyn and Ed Hazan take volunteering seriously…and have a lot of fun with it, too. Yes, they even scrubbed birch trees this year. Carolyn loves the woodland walk on the outside edge of the Sensory Garden. “But going for a walk isn’t always easy—every ten minutes, there’s someone to stop and talk to!”
Carolyn and Ed Hazan are the volunteer’s volunteer: they give of their time separately and together. Between the two of them, they’ve worked in nearly every garden, and the list of events that they’ve volunteered for reads like the year’s schedule at the Garden: Wonderland Express, the Orchid Show, World Environment Day, Kite Festival, Chef Series, and the Antiques & Garden Fair…and more
In 2001, when Ed decided that he wanted to learn how to grow vegetables, long-time volunteer Sam Darin suggested that he give volunteering a try. Both Ed and Carolyn began by volunteering two times per month—today they’re up to three or four days per week.
“It’s the people,” Carolyn says without hesitation when asked what drives them to volunteer. “We love it because we know everybody, and there’s always somebody new to talk to—you can never have too many friends!”
The photo of the couple says it all: they’re vibrant, intrepid, can-do people who have found their tribe at the Garden. And, yes, they’re washing the birch trees (every five years or so, the trees get a brightening scrub).
Thank you both for giving so much.
Three Cheers for Your Fellow Volunteers
Read about five award-winning volunteers in the winter 2014 edition of Keep Growing magazine (page 18). Ready to join us as a volunteer and make your mark at the Garden? Volunteering starts here.
©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org