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.
Author - Horticulture and Master Gardener Program Coordinator