- Author: Marisa A Coyne
- Editor: Melissa Womack
In April, we celebrate National Volunteer Month, honoring all of the contributions that volunteers make in our communities. All month long, the UC Master Gardener Program will feature stories of exceptional volunteers, or Gardeners with Heart, making a difference in California's community, school, demonstration, and research gardens. While the past program year presented many challenges to program delivery, the surge of interest in gardening has never been higher. The passion and support of UC Master Gardener volunteers have been essential in the program continuing to serve our mission.
Today, we celebrate Gardeners with Heart, whose diversity, equity, and inclusion leadership have transformed program delivery, outreach, and administration. These volunteers embody the UCANR Strategic Goal to Improve Diversity Equity and Inclusion through their commitment to serving audiences historically underinvested by Extension and developing their fellow volunteers' community engagement and cultural competency. Because of the nature of COVID-19 restrictions, many of our Gardeners with Heart nominated in the community stewardship category also display outstanding technological skills, using new virtual platforms and approaches to support their efforts.
Cesar Lopez-Barreras – Riverside County
Cesar Lopez-Barreras is a high school teacher, mentor, and graduate of the 2020 UC Master Gardener Program in Riverside County. Cesar is passionate in his desire to extend the reach of the UC Master Gardener Program in the underserved, under-represented Eastern Coachella Valley. “As a native and resident of the Eastern Coachella Valley, a high school teacher, and a Spanish speaker - Cesar is an invaluable leader in our organization's work to truly address the needs of our community through the establishment of community gardens and sustainable gardening workshops,” says fellow volunteer Marcia Stone.
Cesar, a diversity equity and inclusion committee member, is an incredible messenger for the UC Master Gardener Program. He proactively reaches out to local community-based organizations to share invitations for future collaborations. In a recent letter to a prospective new partner organization offering arts education and young adult leadership development programming in Eastern Coachella Valley, he wrote, "I am now a teacher at one of the local high schools where I teach horticulture and crop science to teenagers. I too worry about food insecurity not only of my students and their families but as a community as a whole. I see it as my calling to help others supplement their nutritional needs by growing their food. Many families live in apartments or have housing situations where they cannot simply install a vegetable garden. Hence why community gardens are so important!”
In addition to Cesar's facilitation of community partnerships, he is an invaluable supporter of UC Master Gardener Program trainees and fellow volunteers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cesar worked hard to create a space of inclusion and belonging online. “When our 2020-21 training class moved online, Cesar made himself available to class members, the Zoom Panel Team, and the class coordinator to share his technology expertise, says Marcia Stone. “He has established a private YouTube link where desert area UC Master Gardener presentations can be posted. Additionally, Cesar has supported the class mentoring program with his ability to provide breakout rooms for the mentors to meet with their mentees.” If we have tech questions, says Marcia, “Cesar is our go-to person, and he has brought us a long way in our technical knowledge and confidence, which has enabled our program to stop at nothing during this challenging time of COVID-19.”
Currently, Cesar offers his expertise to various community garden projects, including the 'Home Propagation of Native Seeds' and the ‘Coachella Valley Rescue Mission Project.' His digital support made two new home gardening class series possible in two distinct desert growing seasons. Finally, though he'd already completed his minimum hours requirements, he volunteered to support local senior citizens by purchasing and delivering their groceries as well as providing them with transportation to and from COVID-19 vaccination centers.
“Every hour volunteered by Cesar enriches the UC Master Gardener Program and impacts the greater community,” explains Marcia Stone, “COVID-19 has challenged our program and its membership. It must be said that this individual, Cesar, has been instrumental in helping us to meet the challenge and to grow and succeed despite it.”
Elizabeth McSwain – San Bernardino County
Elizabeth McSwain, a business owner, community wellness educator, and a recent graduate of the first online training class of the UC Master Gardener Program in San Bernardino, immediately ‘dug in' when she joined the program in 2020. After noticing the lack of community garden space in the city of Ontario, Calif., Elizabeth made plans to start a community garden - now called the Seeds of Joy Garden. “Elizabeth's leadership in creating this garden,” says program coordinator Maggie O'Neill, “is a great example of community building from the ground up. Elizabeth has gone above and beyond to ensure that all our community members are included in this garden, reaching out across diverse local religious organizations, multiple organizations working with youth and seniors.”
Elizabeth's organizing approach has ensured that community members with varying cultural and ethnic backgrounds were at the table in creating the Seeds of Joy Garden. “Her theme of inclusivity is apparent in all that she does with the garden, not only in engaging diverse members of the public in the planning process but also making sure that the garden is well supported by local officials in all capacity, to ensure the garden's sustainability and success,” applauds Maggie, “the Seeds of Joy Garden project is a shining example of how a community can come together and create a space that has diverse support and representation.” Elizabeth's vision for the garden is to create a welcoming space in the community for outdoor classes and meetings. The garden plans to donate produce grown in the garden to local food banks to help reduce food security. Her vision is catching on! Elizabeth has recruited new and experienced UC Master Gardener Program volunteers as well as University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UCANR) personnel in the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) to join this effort to engage the Ontario community in the formation AND delivery of gardens and gardening information.
Veronika Fukson – Alameda County
Veronika Fukson is a community leader, organizer, and UC Master Gardener Program volunteer in Alameda County. “Veronika is an excellent listener, communicator, and leader. She is open-minded and willing to try new approaches,” says program coordinator Dawn Kooyumjian.
Veronika's leadership and creativity are displayed in her efforts to improve the UC Master Gardener Program's recruitment and selection process in Alameda County, improving access to the training program for all who want to learn about gardening. (The UC Master Gardener Program, like other Master Gardener Programs nationwide, is predominately white, female-identified, college-educated, and more affluent than the average person living in the United States). Veronika arranged for continuing education for current volunteers on recruitment and retention across generations and implicit bias. Her advocacy was instrumental in ensuring volunteer access to the University of California's Managing Implicit Bias online course. In addition to training and development around DEI for current volunteers, Veronika is a strong advocate for targeted outreach and recruitment of new trainees.
Veronika's commitment to inclusivity of the UC Master Gardener Program extends to her willingness to try new delivery methods. When COVID-19, she pivoted the training class to Zoom, fully embracing the advantages of technology, including increased accessibility of courses for trainees. In 2020 and 2021, Veronika launched a new community garden project with Family Emergency Shelter Coalition (FESCO), an organization that supports homeless families, provides transitional housing and family crisis services. Thanks to her efforts, a community garden will be established on-site to educate and service FESCO residents. Says Veronika, “My greatest joy as a UC Master Gardener volunteer is working with a group of fellow volunteers and sharing information with the public. The collegiality, great fun, and laughter make the job a sheer pleasure - It is what I miss most during this pandemic.”
About National Volunteer Month and Gardeners with Heart
Special appreciation to UC Master Gardener Program coordinators Maggie O'Neill (San Bernardino) and Alameda (Dawn Kooyumjian) and lead volunteer Marcia Stone (Riverside) for their contributions to this story.