- 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>
- Author: Marisa Coyne
- Editor: Melissa Womack
- Author: Valerie Borel
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 has transformed program delivery, outreach, and administration. These volunteers embody the UCANR Strategic Goal to Improve Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) through their commitment to serving audiences historically underinvested by Extension and developing the community engagement and cultural competency of their fellow volunteers. 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.
Jennifer Kwoon – Los Angeles County
Jennifer is an amazing UC Master Gardener Program volunteer from the Los Angeles County class of 2019! She's always looking for ways to use her skills to help the UC Master Gardener Program grow and be more helpful to the diverse communities here in Los Angeles County. Before the pandemic, Jennifer could often be found volunteering at the Alhambra Farmers' Market, sharing gardening information with our community. As a fluent Mandarin speaker who also understands Cantonese, she has helped the program reach Chinese-speaking community members with which the program previously had limited interaction.
In recent months, Jennifer has been very active in Los Angeles County's recently formed UC Master Gardener Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Task Force. Last fall, Jennifer approached UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) staff and offered to analyze program data to help us have a better understanding of the trends in diversity of UC Master Gardeners and trainees over time and of course, we were happy to take her up on this offer!
"I am deeply honored to be nominated for the 2021 UC Master Gardener Program Gardeners with Heart volunteer recognition. Like many people, the global pandemic changed my perspective on how I could still be involved and continue to serve my community in this year of isolation,” says Jennifer, “In addition to a lover of all things green, I am also a fervent proponent for justice and equity. So as a data scientist, it seemed like a natural step to assist the UC Master Gardener Program in Los Angeles County in analyzing years of UC Master Gardener Program applicant and volunteer data to help build a more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming program for all. The UC Master Gardener Program's DEI initiatives are a result of the combined efforts of many caring, dedicated, and extremely generous people. I am privileged to work among them and am continuously inspired by their warmth and commitment to the community.”
Jennifer's contributions have added a layer of awareness to the entire UC Master Gardener Program in Los Angeles, and in turn on every project, by highlighting the urgent need for improvement in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion in every aspect of our program. Jennifer offered her advanced data analysis skills to analyze anonymous UC Master Gardener applicant data from 2010 through 2020 to illustrate the gaps in our applicant selection process concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion. After Jennifer painstakingly analyzed ten years' worth of program data and presented her findings to the group, the DEI Task Force made practical suggestions based on those results. “Jennifer's work was foundational to allowing us to see where we need to improve our volunteer outreach to reflect the diversity of Los Angeles County better. She also promoted cultural competence, relationship building, and communication among our volunteers,” explains program coordinator Valorie Borel. Along with DEI task force members, Jennifer helped design a final project for 2021 trainees, which prepares them to support diversity, equity, and inclusion in their volunteer work.
Sherwood Demonstration Garden ‘Veggie Team' - El Dorado County
In 2019, the UC Master Gardener Program launched a partnership with Motherlode Rehabilitation (MORE), a non-profit that provides services to adults with developmental disabilities and empowers individuals with disabilities to enhance their quality of life. Twice a month, MORE clients visited the Sherwood Demonstration Garden to learn about gardening and nutrition with UC Master Gardener Program volunteers, including Kitty Howard and the Veggie Team: Deb Helleseth, Karen McNeil, Elissa Bunn, Gail Fulbeck, Barbara Brydon, Muriel Stephenson, Dave Hale, and Suzanne Surburg.
“When COVID-19 hit, MORE participants could no longer visit the garden, so the ‘Veggie Team' pivoted,” explains program coordinator Tracy Celio. Despite not being able to meet in person, UC Master Gardeners continued to engage MORE clients. A team of volunteers developed learning opportunities and videos to share about various gardening topics and projects like how to build a birdhouse and growing succulents. “Our partnership with the UC Master Gardener Program has had a significant impact on our clients. It opened up a whole new hands-on experience, and our clients learned about where food comes from, how it grows, and the miracle of harvesting. UC Master Gardeners treated our clients with such respect that they felt part of the community. While in-person activities had to pause because of COVID-19, UC Master Gardeners actively supported MORE clients. We can't wait to return in-person to the garden!” says Susie Davies, Chief Executive Officer at MORE.
In addition to this community partner work, the 'Veggie Team' kept the Sherwood Demonstration Garden thriving in 2020. Their work enabled the UC Master Gardener Program in El Dorado to donate large quantities of vegetables to local food banks, launch community training on Facebook Live, produce videos for the public, and develop contact-less gardening kits for existing community projects.
Thurman Howard – Riverside County
In 2020 UC Master Gardener Program volunteer, Thurman Howard, joined fellow UC Master Gardener volunteers in Riverside County to create a new program effort: Diverse Community Projects. Diverse Community Projects is an umbrella effort combining several existing projects with new ventures, designed to engage and support communities often underinvested by Extension. The project focuses on partnerships with organizations serving Black, Hispanic/Latino/Latinx, Asian and Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native American, and people with disabilities. "For many years UC Master Gardeners in Riverside County have been involved in reaching out to various communities to provide gardening assistance and information. However, we have become increasingly aware that several ethnic populations are either not served at all or who are considerably underserved," says Thurman.
According to fellow volunteer, Georgia Renne the team increased outreach to their existing project serving Women Infants and Children (WIC), a federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program. Currently serving nine WIC offices throughout Riverside County, the team is now working to expand its footprint. They have developed materials in Spanish, recruited bilingual volunteers and speakers, and partnered with Beaumont Head Start to provide education and bilingual assistance in a local children's garden. These efforts have increased UC Master Gardener Program contacts in the Latino community in Riverside by 1000%! In addition to work with WIC and Headstart participants, the Diverse Community Projects team, collaborates closely with Faith Temple, a predominately Black congregation located in an ethnically diverse community of Black, Asian, and Hispanic families. UC Master Gardener Program volunteers worked with congregants to develop a one-acre community garden and orchard and gardening programming in collaboration with Cal Fresh and the Faith Temple's garden committee.
Thurman worked with his team to support the 'Cultivating Inclusion Garden' located in Murrieta, Calif. to help address the need for vocational skills for people with disabilities. UC Master Gardener Program volunteers organize and train community volunteers on how to manage the citrus orchard and several raised beds for vegetables. Volunteers then work alongside adults and children with disabilities to care for plants and harvested produce to be donated to local food banks. From July 2020 to January 2021, this orchard produced over 2 tons of citrus for their local food pantries.
Finally, Thurman Howard's years-long personal relationship with the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians in the San Jacinto area resulted in the development of a community resource garden, the Soboba Elder's Garden. Thurman's approach to this partnership reflects his deep respect for community partners, humility, and understanding of the importance of trust-building. "At the beginning of this project,” says Georgia, “Thurman worked to visited with Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians tribal members twice per week to discuss soil building, project goals, and project budget.” As a result, the Soboba Elders' Garden today has become a huge success. The site now has multiple fields planted with seasonally appropriate crops, a robust composting and vermiculture program, and various types of irrigation. The Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians has nominated several members to complete the UC Master Gardener Program training and funded a full-time coordinator to deliver garden produce to tribal members. Current plans include planting a summer crop of corn, beans, pumpkins, and yams or sweet potatoes as requested by the Elders. In the late spring of 2021, members continue to harvest crops daily with a bumper crop of carrots, beets, mustard greens, onions, and three varieties of lettuces.
About National Volunteer Month and Gardeners with Heart
Special appreciation to UC Master Gardener Program coordinators Valerie Borel (Los Angeles) and Tracy Celio (El Dorado) and lead volunteer Georgie Renne (Riverside) for contributions to this story.