National Volunteer Month: Gardeners with Heart – Community Connection Leaders

Apr 23, 2022

National Volunteer Month: Gardeners with Heart – Community Connection Leaders

Apr 23, 2022

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 community connection leaders. These volunteers pursue and build relationships with new audiences or community partners for the UC Master Gardener Program, focusing on increasing program reach and being inclusive of new and more diverse audiences.

Heather Holland

UC Master Gardener volunteer Heather Holland has chaired the School Gardens Committee for seven years for the UC Master Gardener Program in San Diego County. This is no small task as school gardens pepper the landscape all over the county, with hundreds existing from heavily populated south county to the northernmost rural communities. Volunteers in San Diego County currently consult in approximately 350 schools, with more than 800 schools served over the past 20 years. It takes a lot of volunteers to cover all of these locations, Heather leads a committee of over 80 volunteers and inspires them to bring life and learning into each garden site. 

Amazingly, Heather personally volunteers in 31 school gardens across the county. She recently learned of an opportunity to get sheds, tools, irrigation supplies, plants and other items donated. She efficiently organized schools that needed the items, made multiple trips to gather the donations, and quickly distributed these great new resources to the schools that needed them the most. “This isn't unusual for Heather. She is always the first to volunteer when someone needs help,” says fellow San Diego volunteer Devonna Hall.

In doing this important work, Heather fosters a close working relationship with all of the schools served by the UC Master Gardener volunteers in San Diego. Because of her efforts and those of her committee, schools in the county are supported and students are connected to food and gardening. Heather's words, “the natural world is the best teacher.” Thanks to this ingenuity, follow-through, and strong commitment, more schools and students are involved in growing food, eating it, and learning about climate change.

Ron Antone and Penni Parsons

UC Master Gardener volunteer dream team Ron Antone and Penni Parsons worked together to create a space for hands-on community education. They did this through leadership and hard work and brought together the community and local partners to provide support and enthusiasm for the project. The result of this hard work is a propagation house located on land owned by the Motherlode Land Trust, an organization whose mission is to provide agricultural and heritage education to the residents of Amador County. Other partners include Farms of Amador, Resource, Conservation District, and the Amador County Recreation Agency Community Garden.

Community events such as farmer's markets and Earth Day are held at this location; it serves as a community learning center for all ages. With construction complete, the UC Master Gardener propagation house will offer training for youth and adults on how to propagate plants sustainably. Farms of Amador, an organization Ron is closely connected to, will bring student field trips to the site to learn about propagation, supporting both skill and career development.

By creating this important space for gathering and education, Ron and Penni are inspiring a love for gardening throughout their community. Says Penni, “my love for gardening began when I was a little girl, my dad always had a garden. Knowing that I can plant a tiny seed and that in time it will grow and produce food is both nourishing  my body and soul.”

To get their project off the ground, Ron served as construction lead for the project. He drew up plans, the budget, organized materials and worked with partners on permissions for the construction of the propagation house. Penni worked on the plant sale committee, providing leadership and sweat equity that raised more than $5,000 to fund the propagation house. She also built a team of volunteers to work with her and Ron, and together, they built an incredible space to bring the community together and support education.

Emy Shibukawa

Emy became a UC Master Gardener as a member of the first online class for San Bernardino County. She was an Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) class participant, and through the UC Master Gardener/Master Food Preserver/EFNEP partnership program, she was exposed to the excitement and opportunity of UC Master Gardener training. 

Immediately upon starting her training, Emy saw what an important and needed service the program provides to the community. Today, Emy is instrumental in gathering community needs and marrying those needs with the services that Cooperative Extension programs provide. She has been particularly impactful in her local San Bernardino/Muscoy/Highland area, matching community needs with UC Master Gardener volunteers and projects.

One example is Operation New Hope, an organization dedicated to underserved youth, mentoring and educating them in life skills and pathways to success. Today, UC Master Gardener volunteers are working with Operation New Hope's San Bernardino location to add gardening spaces indoors and out, bringing in student and staff educational support from not only UC Master Gardeners but UC Master Food Preservers and EFNEP educators as well. 

“In addition to projects [Emy] is bringing to the program to expand our outreach she supports our talks, our community and school garden committees and more!” says Maggie O'Neill, program coordinator. “Emy is very dedicated to bringing education and the University into our communities and neighborhoods. By leading this work connecting the community and the programs and services of Cooperative Extension, she is practicing the community-engaged extension work that we know is significant, impactful, and responsible for lasting change.” 

Roxana Prince

Roxana Prince is relatively new to gardening and a great example of how you don't need to be a lifelong gardener to make a significant and impactful difference in your community through gardening education. “[Roxana] is an inspiration to others who might want to become a Master Gardener. They don't need to know it all or be lifelong gardeners to be an invaluable part of the UC Master Gardener team,” says Maggie O'Neill, program coordinator. “She is a sponge when it comes to learning and is great at seeking out reputable research to learn more when she has questions!” Roxana's inquisitive nature is one of the reasons she is so great at what she does in her volunteer role. She is relatable and shares her home gardening journey in a way that empowers and inspires everyone she connects with.

Roxana is bilingual and combined her commitment to community and education to get monthly UC Master Gardener classes offered in Spanish. She took the initiative, translating PowerPoints, marketing classes to Spanish-language audiences, giving talks, and answering questions. This impactful work has dramatically expanded the reach in a county with over 700,000 Spanish speakers. “She is a great example of not only a UC Master Gardener who only supports our regular activities throughout the county, but she also finds activities close to home in her community and brings what she has learned there,” says O'Neill. 

The latter is one of many examples of Roxana's great work. Additional projects include working with the Mexican Consulate to add gardening classes taught in Spanish, working with Music Changing Lives Community Garden to create a food forest, and much more. Her efforts are grounded in supporting the community and successfully connecting UC Master Gardener outreach with those who might not otherwise have come across the program. “The UC Master Gardener class provided infinite possibilities and options for my family and me and provided another tool under my belt to better serve the community I work, and live in,” says Roxanna. “Especially my gente (people), the Spanish speaking community, where now I can share evidenced-based gardening tips in Spanish too!”

Barbara Kiernan

“Barbara Kiernan is organized, creative, energetic, and an effective leader. She is sought out for her community garden and composting skills, programming perspectives, and institutional knowledge embodying everything desirable in a great UC Master Gardener volunteer,” says advisor emeritus Janine Hasey. Barbara has a passion for teaching gardening skills for growing food and years of experience partnering with local agencies, schools, and organizations to share this knowledge with Sutter-Yuba residents. The list of projects Barbara has started or coordinated that benefit her community and the UC Master Gardener Program in Sutter-Yuba is impressively long.

For six years, Barbara taught vegetable gardening at Leo Chesney's woman's prison garden program. The women grew their own vegetables, taking pride in their accomplishments and finding purpose and recreation in the garden. The resulting fresh fruits and vegetables harvested saved the county thousands of dollars a year and provided a healthy and nutritious addition to the food being provided to the women. The project inspired one inmate to pursue UC Master Gardener training after release. Barbara has also played important connector and educator roles with the Yuba County Jail and Probation office, coordinating impactful gardening programs and connecting the UC Master Gardener Program with a traditionally underserved community. 

Barbara plays a key leadership roles as a co-coordinator of community and community gardens outreach. In this role, Barbara coordinates with the city to create the Marysville Community Garden, where gardeners have access to raised beds, city water, on-site compost bins, gardening tools, and more. The garden was located close to a bus route and a bike trail, a thoughtful consideration that has enabled more community members to benefit from the garden. She was also instrumental in establishing the Artisan Community Garden located in Yuba City. All of Barbara's work serves to deepen local connections between the community and the programs offered by Cooperative Extension. Says Barbara, “being in the garden teaches us to be humble and learn.”

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 Tracy Celio (Amador) and Maggie O'Neill (San Bernardino), advisor emeritus Janine Hasey (Sutter-Yuba) and volunteer leader Devonna Hall (San Diego) for their contributions to this story.