- Author: Melissa G. Womack
- Author: Marisa Coyne
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 featured 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.
This past year, with COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and limited safe activities, the UC Master Gardener Program saw a rush of gardeners looking for help and advice on starting a garden. Calls and e-mails poured into UC Master Gardener Program hotlines, Facebook groups, and websites. Today, we celebrate Gardeners with Heart, whose commitment to continuing program extension over the past year using new digital platforms and technology has helped the program stay connected to our communities.
Allen Buchinski – Santa Clara County
Allen Buchinski joined the UC Master Gardener Program in 2003 because of his love for gardening and its sense of community. “I joined the Master Gardener program in 2003 because of my interest in learning more about gardening and to become part of a like-minded community, looking ahead to the day I'd retire. I worked full time while also volunteering for thirteen years before retiring in 2016. I've continued (and stepped up) my UC Master Gardener activities since then,” says Allen.
Allen has played an instrumental role in the development and ongoing maintenance of the UC Master Gardener Program in Santa Clara County's website. He became the chair of the website team following his retirement in 2016 and took on the role of co-chair for the program's help desk. On the first Friday of each month since 2003, Allen has helped answer gardening questions from the public at the help desk. Since COVID-19 and the surge of interest in gardening, Allen helped the program quickly switch its help desk to be a remote, virtual space. “The help desk has been especially interesting during the past year because of the pandemic. We needed to adjust our processes to work from home as well as deal with a 50% increase in the number of questions. We answered more than 2,100 questions from March 2020 to February 2021!” says Allen.
Not only has Allen helped bring the program's help desk online, but he also coded an online storefront for the program's support group to sell seedlings and schedule pick-ups. “[Allen's] website know-how and swift action saved thousands of plants from the compost pile,” exclaims Katherine Uhde, program coordinator, “these sales bring in tens of thousands of dollars to our partner non-profit, Friends of Master Gardeners, used to support outreach and our demonstration garden Although both sales were limited to UC Master Gardeners, friends, and family last year, all of the plants were sold or donated to non-profit agencies throughout Santa Clara County. This would not have happened if it weren't for the quick work of Allen and his team. Because of their efforts, the demonstration gardens and the advisory board had funding in 2020-21.”
Michele Willer-Allred, Ventura County
“Social media has been a great tool, especially with promoting our virtual workshops and interacting with other Master Gardeners throughout the country. But there is so much more we want to do,” explains Michele, “We plan to start an e-mail newsletter; create educational gardening videos and virtual tours of local gardens; profile more of our amazing garden volunteers; and go outside our county and visit with other UC Master Gardener Programs. We also hope to increase our reach to a broader, more ethnically diverse audience, as well as younger gardeners in our community, since they are indeed our future!"
With all in-person events and limited activities due to COVID-19, Michele felt it was important to still communicate about all of the dedicated volunteers still making such an impact in the community. She developed a series of interviews with UC Master Gardeners to learn from them and share their advice with the public. With so many people starting “victory gardens” during quarantine, she also felt it was important to continue sharing gardening resources and science-based gardening information with the public.
Rita Evans - Fresno County
Since 1993, Rita Evans has been an active UC Master Gardener volunteer in Fresno County. In her 28 years with the program, she served many roles and shared her many talents and skills to serve the program's mission. “I am a born volunteer and the program gave me wings to serve, to stretch and grow. I have strong organizational skills and love team building,” says Rita, “the UC Master Gardener Program has allowed me to use those skills to create and serve in many leadership positions.”
When the pandemic hit and COVID-19 forced the closure of the UC Cooperative Extension Fresno County office and most volunteer activities, Rita immediately came up with a plan on how volunteers could stay connected and continue to earn hours. “Rita shared her idea on how we could offer a UC Master Gardener “refresher course” similar to the new training course for our current volunteers. She quickly began to gather a group of volunteers to transfer course classes online to a digital format,” says Denise Cuendett, program coordinator in Fresno County. UC Master Gardener volunteers immediately started pulling together tech teams and presenters and scheduled bi-weekly classes on Zoom.
“When the pandemic hit, our online refresher course was born. It is a 16-session 'refresher' using the UC Master Gardener Handbook with our own UC Master Gardener volunteers being the featured speakers. It is providing a path for volunteers to earn their required hours, to socialize virtually with a study buddy and to refresh their horticulture knowledge ... it's a win-win,” explains Rita.
After seeing the success of the Zoom classes, Rita was inspired to continue the county's annual volunteer awards program on Zoom last December. Rita is part of a team of volunteers that created a “party-in-a-bag” that included a dinner, mask and other small gifts to awardees. The creative planning provided a way to celebrate the volunteer impacts COVID-19-style, but still in a festive way.
Digital Superstars Team, Marin County
The UC Master Gardener Program in Marin County recently completed a huge renovation of its public website, marinmg.ucanr.edu. The new website launch was made possible by a team of more than 40 volunteers, who spent eight months to make sure the site was visually appealing, easy to read, and navigate. Three key members of the team were recently nominated by Nanette Londeree for their hard work and dedication to the project, Kathryn Parkinson, Roxanne Ansolabehere, and Linda Stiles.
“This past year, a group of us decided to transform and rebuild our organization's entire website. We started as a small group, which ultimately grew to nearly 60 volunteers. It became a focused and vigorous goal for all of us, and I felt lucky to have been involved in the endeavor. The result is a beautiful and well-organized website that richly serves our community,” shares Roxanne Ansolabehere.
Roxanne developed numerous digital organizational tools to layout the new website navigation, schedule writers and editors, track progress, and allow for submission and retrieval of documents and photos. These tools were vital to the success of the new website project.
Linda Stiles, a gifted graphic designer, helped make the project “sparkle.” Her knowledge of technology, incredible aesthetics, ability to visualize the final product, and generosity of time were elemental to the success of this project. Linda designed the overall look and feel of the website and built every page using the existing required platform, focusing on user appeal and ease of use for all devices. She developed nearly a hundred unique banners, chose photos that promoted diversity, and did it all with grace and wry humor.
About National Volunteer Month and Gardeners with Heart
Special appreciation to Nanette Londeree, UC Master Gardener volunteer leader in Marin County, Alexa Hendricks, program coordinator in Ventura County, Katherine Uhde, program coordinator in Santa Clara County, and Denise Cuendett, program coordinator in Fresno County, for sharing these stories./h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>/h3>