In April, we celebrate National Volunteer Month and Week (April 17-23), honoring all of the contributions that volunteers make in our communities. All week long, the UC Master Gardener Program will feature stories of exceptional volunteers, or Gardeners with Heart, making a difference in California's communities. This year we recognize our community connection leaders, harvest helpers, and environmental stewards. The passion and support of UC Master Gardener volunteers have been and continue to be essential in the program continuing to serve our mission.
Please join me as we celebrate and share our Gardeners with Heart and their remarkable stories, projects, and impact. Today, we celebrate Gardeners with Heart, who are harvest helpers who empower their community to grow food at home, in schools and in community gardens. Connecting gardeners with resources, knowledge, and the support they need to have a successful food garden harvest and improved access to nutritious fresh produce.
“I volunteer my time as a UC Master Gardener because I believe that we all should look to reshape the way we view our environment and the way our food is produced,” explains Gardener with Heart, La'Toya Taylor-Berthil, “I aim to be able to help spark the flame in the youth and my peers to take control of their health through their diets and to understand where their food comes from and how beneficial it is to take care of our environment including our trees and everyday plants.” La'Toya became a UC Master Gardener volunteer in 2021 as part of its pandemic-inspired first fully online class. She was long involved in gardening and supported a fellow UC Master Gardener, Elizabeth McSwain, in her gardening and community-building adventures. Through her connection with McSwain, La'Toya was inspired to learn more about the program and wanted to be a UC Master Gardener herself!
La'Toya is dedicated to wellness in the community both in her personal life and volunteer life, and volunteers with the UC Master Gardener Program to bring wellness through gardening to the community at large. She worked closely with the Seeds of Joy Community Garden
to support them from the beginning, helping with planting days, teaching classes, setting up and all the logistics that go into public events at community gardens. She has now expanded on what she has learned in that process, and what she brings to the table through her own educational pursuits, and is supporting other projects in the community, including working with school gardens. “As a mother, my main mission is to help reshape the way our children are fed and educated in school about their health and food. Our children need more access to local whole foods and I wholeheartedly believe that gardening should be a part of every school's curriculum in some shape or form,” says La'Toya.
Currently, La'Toya is a member of the School and Community Garden committee and works with schools in the Fontana Unified School District. She is in the beginning stages of helping Locust Elementary School develop its raised garden beds, and feels it is vitally important to hand down sustainability to our children and shape their futures through protecting the environment and making it a community effort. “La'Toya brings enthusiasm to all of her projects. Even though she has been with the program a short time we are seeing her make a difference,” says program coordinator Maggie O'Neil. “La'Toya is working closely with school and community gardens to teach classes about food gardening and make gardening accessible. We are so grateful for her passion to promote community wellness from the ground up, literally!”
As a UC Master Gardener, Barbara Searles is most deeply involved as the co-chair of the School & Community project team and is on the Help Desk steering committee for Marin County. Barbara shares her gardening knowledge and enthusiasm for growing plants as a garden committee leader at the Mill Valley Community Garden, connecting with gardeners of all ages. In addition to her work with community gardens throughout Marin, she shares valuable resources and expertise with a growing number of senior residential community gardens. Recently, the Cities of San Rafael and San Anselmo received insight from Barbara on best practices for community gardens.
During the pandemic, a time of critical need for community access to fresh produce, Barbara spearheaded the initiative, “Grow an Extra Row” of vegetables for food-insecure citizens in Marin County. In March 2021, Barbara inspired, organized, and instructed a group of UC Master Gardeners to join the “Grow an Extra Row” team to grow vegetable plants at home, then donate those plants to community gardens with the expectation that the harvested produce be donated to local food relief agencies.
“Barbara Searles is an extraordinary individual who dedicates her time and skills to a variety of organizations that allow her creativity to flourish,” says fellow UC Master Gardener volunteer Jeannette Perez. “The school and community gardens project, and specifically the “Grow An Extra Row” initiative benefit from Barbara's deep gardening knowledge, creative problem-solving, and unwavering commitment to unifying UC Master Gardeners, school and community gardens, and local relief organizations to intentionally improve food security in Marin communities—in the present and into the future. Barbara Barbara is a UC Master Gardener with an extraordinary heart, and exemplifies to the fullest extent the role of Harvest Helper.”
Pat Hitchcock truly loves teaching people about growing vegetables. “Teaching people is at the very core of what we do, sharing what we know and providing resources for good information,” says program coordinator in Napa County Yvonne Rasmussen.
As a long-time volunteer, Pat shares her skills, knowledge, and love for growing edibles through workshops, school garden consultations, and giving talks. For the past two years, she has organized a team of UC Master Gardeners to provide monthly community food-growing forums. Each forum is a one-hour Zoom webinar that focuses on successful seasonal food gardening. Topics include planting, cover crop rotation, record keeping, tools, watering and pest management. Pat shares all of the information a gardener needs from seeds to harvest and storage. "My favorite projects are workshops (of many kinds) and our local field trials," says Pat. "While the field trials are not university level research of any kind, they do allow our small team of growers to get hands on practice at growing a variety of vegetables over the years. When we teach others about growing those same vegetables, knowledge gained from University sources is augmented by personal experiences of success and failure. This seems to resonate with our audiences."
Pat has also helped local partners with Napa County's community partner gardens, including its recent connection with OLE Health
to encourage growing and eating healthy food from the garden. She has mentored countless school garden coordinators to help them plan their edible and vegetables gardens and has become one of the program's go-to people for guest speaker requests on growing vegetables!
About National Volunteer Month and Gardeners with Heart
During National Volunteer Month (April 1 - 30), the UC Master Gardener Program celebrates its 6,216 incredible UC Master Gardener volunteers and their contributions to California communities. Throughout the month, we will feature stories of special volunteers or Gardeners with Heart from across the state who use their skills to improve program delivery. Gardeners with Heart are volunteers nominated by their local county leadership as community connection leaders, harvest helpers, and environmental stewards. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter for National Volunteer Month and Week!
Special appreciation to UC Master Gardener Program coordinators Maggie O'Neil (San Bernardino) Yvonne Rasmussen (Napa) and volunteer leader Jeannette Perez (Marin) for their contributions to this story. To see additional Gardeners with Heart - Harvest Helpers, view the blog post: National Volunteer Month: Gardeners with Heart – Harvest Helpers (Part 2)