Inspired Service - Birmingham Botanical Gardens

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Around the Gardens Blog


Inspired Service

Inspired Service

Committed and hardworking, our 2019 Volunteer Honorees lend
hands, voices to cultivating features of the Gardens they treasure

By Jamie Haas, Mindy Keyes Black, and Alice Thompson Moore

Volunteers are an indispensable source of vitality for the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens. They cultivate not only the beautiful flora that visitors love, but also the joy guests feel when they walk the Gardens’ grounds. Whether through giving tours, cleaning out beds, propagating plants, or spearheading special events, their hard work enables us to fulfill our mission of protecting, nurturing, and sharing the wonders of the Gardens.

Each year, the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens honors individuals who have gone above and beyond in their service to the Gardens. This year, we recognize volunteers for their help and leadership in everything from educational programming to fundraising. Get to know our 2019 honorees: how they serve, how they got involved, what they enjoy most about volunteering here, and why they encourage you to volunteer here too.  


Plant Person of the Year
Bob Koons


 

Bob first embarked on his volunteer journey with the Friends in January 2017—about halfway through that year’s Alabama Cooperative Extension System Master Gardener class. Now a key member of the Trees & Shrubs volunteer growing group, Bob has also spent time in the Japanese Garden, in the Abroms Rhododendron Garden, and on other projects as needed.

Q: How did you get involved here?

A: I knew Kaul Wildflower Curator John Manion through other volunteers and asked him if I could work in that garden, which is one of my favorite spots at the BBG. I also volunteered for the Spring Plant Sale, ending up in Trees & Shrubs after meeting Alicia Hall and Jean Sherlock. This past spring, Jean asked me to take over her responsibilities in the Trees & Shrubs group. The rest is history—I have been at it ever since.

I have always had an interest in, and have walked quite a few, botanical gardens, parklands, private gardens, and nature preserves around the world, particularly observing the hardscape and overall landscape design that makes such spaces so beautiful (and successful). Starting to understand the plants and horticultural aspects has been a post-retirement activity.

Q: What do you find most rewarding?

A: All of the above—from the south (Japanese Garden) to the north (Kaul Wildflower Garden), the BBG represents many aspects of outdoor spaces and environmental management. I particularly enjoy the company of volunteers who share a respect for nature and get excited about making and/or saving something of value in the Gardens.

Q: Who should volunteer here, and why?

A: Anyone at any age who wants to better understand their environment and share those interests with other (more knowledgeable) plant people. Nothing is ever completed here; it is an ongoing and evolving effort that changes from season to season. I enjoy working with everyone here but am particularly fascinated with the folks who have a long-learned knowledge of the Gardens.

Q: What is your favorite spot in—or aspect of—the Gardens?

A: Any location where I can look around and see the results of some very well-thought-out designs, plantings, or vistas that someone imposed on or drew out of the garden landscape.


Bob Wendorf Young Adult Service Award
Ashlee Uhlar


 

Ashlee spent time over the summer as a camp counselor at the BBG. Volunteering while also juggling commitments of a summer college course at UAB, she served close to 70 hours through the season. Among Ashlee’s favorite aspects of volunteering were working with the teachers, young people, Volunteer Coordinator Alice Thompson Moore, Education Program Coordinator Ellen Hardy—and of course, the beautiful setting of the Gardens.

Q: How did you get involved here?

A: I was looking for ways to serve over the summer. Since I'm in the STEM Education program at UAB, I was specifically hoping to contribute to the learning environment of our community youth. I discovered the opportunity through the United Way Hands On website, then known as Hands On Birmingham.

Q: What do you find most rewarding?

A: I thoroughly enjoyed seeing our young participants come into their own over the course of a week at camp. By the end of those 5 days, parents weren't just getting their children back with homemade artifacts and memories in tow. At the BBG, there’s a culture of nurturing growth. I saw this happen in countless ways and with countless participants over the course of the summer. To me, it's what made the whole experience so novel and rewarding.

Q: Who should volunteer here, and why?

A: Volunteering restores your faith in people, because it's not just you who shows up, but a whole host of others who want to share the experience of service. If you can't get enough of the outdoors, nature, or gardening, then of course the BBG is a no-brainer. It doesn't matter if you are quiet, like to socialize, or love getting your hands dirty, I promise that you will find something here that you can't get enough of!

Q: What is your favorite spot in—or aspect of—the Gardens?

A: What I love about the BBG is that it is a second home—there is no fee to enter and to take in the Gardens. Not every botanical garden is like that. It's a place where anyone from any walk of life is fully welcomed to enjoy it. What could be better?


Ida C. Burns Volunteers of the Year
Virginia Amason, Leigh Haver


 

Passionate about the mission of the Friends, this dynamic duo teamed up twice as Antiques at the Gardens co-chairs to lead a dedicated volunteer committee in raising a collective $1.2 million in 2018 and 2019 through sponsorships, partnerships, and ticket sales. Virginia began working on the show three years ago, first as a valuable member of the Patrons Committee. Leigh's involvement with the Gardens has varied over the years. As a Junior League of Birmingham volunteer, she worked shifts at the plant sale and served on the Antiques at the Gardens committee on multiple occasions before co-chairing with Virginia.

Q: How did you get involved here?

Virginia: My father-in-law is a very active supporter of the Gardens, so his enthusiasm was contagious! I also grew up working in the yard and enjoy being outside.

Leigh: As with many people, I’d bring my family for pictures and walk the Gardens on nice days, but I became more involved when my friends became involved with the show.

Q: What do you find most rewarding about your volunteer work here?

Virginia: I have found the friendships and meeting new people most rewarding as a volunteer. The Gardens is fortunate to have so many great people supporting their mission, especially the staff. Knowing that the support we raise with Antiques at the Gardens keeps the Gardens available to our community locally and statewide to enjoy at no charge is a big driver for me.

Leigh: I have established many friendships through my involvement with the Gardens. I find the passion of those involved with the Gardens to be inspiring, and I love seeing the busloads of children enjoying their field trips. Knowing that we helped raise funds to contribute to the sustainability of the Gardens is certainly rewarding.

Q: Who should volunteer with the Friends, and why?

Virginia: One of the great things about the Gardens is there is a place for botanists and antique enthusiasts alike all to share their talents here.

Leigh: Volunteers are appreciated, and the staff with the Friends create a welcoming atmosphere.

Q: What is your favorite spot in—or aspect of—the Birmingham Botanical Gardens?

Virginia: Over the years I have always enjoyed taking family photos throughout the Gardens.

Leigh: I have enjoyed joining my children on their field trips to the BBG. We are so fortunate to have such a beautiful space for our community to enjoy.


Educator of the Year
Ritsuko Asano


 

An active member of the Chado Urasenke Tankokai Birmingham Association (a group of people drawn together by diverse interests in Japanese culture), Ritsuko has been teaching Chado, “the way of tea,” for about 20 years. She draws on her talents as a retired interpreter for Honda Motor Company’s Japanese transferees and their families, as well as her heritage as a third-generation tea instructor, to educate the Gardens’ visitors about Japanese tea ceremonies and the cultural significance of the Toshinan, the Gardens’ traditional Japanese teahouse. Many Tuesdays, you’ll also find her hard at work alongside other dedicated Japanese Garden volunteers.

Q: Tell us about what drew you to the Gardens’ teahouse.

A: The day I visited Birmingham for the first time in 1996 to learn about the city where my family was to move, a friend of mine took me around the city, which included the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Mr. Yamada, then Director of New York Urasenke Center, happened to be visiting to give a lecture and invited Japanese residents in the city. He was encouraging the audience to come to clean the Toshinan often and to drink tea afterwards. In other words: Take care of this exceptional teahouse and use it as it was meant to be. Since retiring in June, teaching Chado has turned from a side to the main engagement.

Q: How did you become involved in gardening here as well?

A: [Longtime Friends member] Dr. Bob Wendorf was having a Japanese Garden Society meeting the second Saturday of each month. I joined; however, the membership dwindled but for the two of us. We quit meeting in the [Garden Center] and instead went down to Toshinan to open the teahouse and let it breathe while doing light cleaning. Bob was also a dedicated volunteer, forming a Tuesday volunteer group [originally] called “The Three Docs.” I joined them after retiring in June. I was looking forward to working with him but he passed away last year. He was a great inspiration.

Q: What do you find most rewarding?

A: Working in the serene Japanese Garden provides a clean break from miscellaneous self-imposed, everyday tasks. It is very meditative.

Q: What is your favorite spot in—or aspect of—the Gardens?

A: The BBG's bamboo grove is relatively small but is great enough to transport me back to Japan when I stand there. The composition of the grove is a moving sculpture with a breeze, snow, and moonlight.


A. Brand Walton, Jr., Unsung Hero
Linda Grissom

Linda is a longtime volunteer in the Gardens’ Perennials growing group, having spent time in our potting sheds since 2007. However, she began turning soil long before then, having tended her own flowerbeds and gardened seriously for more than 40 years. Although she lends her time and talents to many local gardening groups, Linda admits she has a special spot in her heart for the Gardens.

Q: How did you get involved here?

A: I’ve been into gardening a long time, and then when I retired in 2007, a friend of mine—Judy Thomason-—took me to the potting sheds. I had mentioned to her that I was interested, and she told me: “I know exactly where you need to be.” That next Thursday I went to work at the Gardens, and I was hooked! I love working with the flowers, every aspect of them. It’s such a pleasure to me to see how these things grow and even sometimes how they die, because that’s a part of it too.

Q: What do you find most rewarding?

A: It’s so interesting to plant a seed and see what it produces, or to do the cuttings and see if they propagate, and just witness how a plant matures. The learning process is amazing. I also enjoy the butterflies and hummingbirds, which is all part of it.

Q: Who should volunteer here, and why?

A: Anybody that has an interest in plants! There’s a place for everybody: perennials, shrubs, herbs, it’s all nice. It just depends on where your interests lie.

Q: What is your favorite spot in—or aspect of—the Gardens?

A: I really like that we are trying to reach the children with our programs and get them interested in the Gardens. A love of nature is something that will bring them pleasure wherever they are in life.


New Friend
Norman Geisinger


 

Norm began volunteering for the Friends last spring, focusing his work primarily in the Japanese Garden. Visitors wandering through are likely to find him cleaning up large juniper trees and Japanese black pine. However, he’s always glad to chat and, as a frequent tour guide, is a fount of valuable knowledge. Norm especially enjoys speaking with children who pass through, happily answering questions and teaching them about the koi and turtles in Long Life Lake. In September alone, Norm spoke to approximately 800 guests.

Q: How did you get involved here?

A: I’ve studied and practiced the art of bonsai for about 25 years now, and I currently have 20 trees in my collection in my daughter’s backyard. My daughter and I also maintained a vegetable garden when she was growing up. So it was a natural next step for me to approach the Gardens and see what I could do here.

Q: What do you find most rewarding?

A: Speaking to the different people that pass through the Gardens, visiting from all over. I’ve talked to people from Oregon, New York, all across the United States. On one occasion I even spoke to a visitor from Bangladesh. I enjoy chatting with guests about the trees, koi, and other aspects of the Japanese Garden—the Moon and “zigzag” bridges, as well as the Seven Virtues Waterfall. The educational side of it is very rewarding.

Q: Who should volunteer here, and why?

A: Anybody with an interest in plants! Even if you don’t know anything about flowers, as long as there’s an interest, you can learn. It’s also fantastic for people who are retired and looking for a new hobby to keep themselves active. It helps me get my morning walks in, for sure.

Q: What is your favorite spot in—or aspect of—the Gardens?

A: The Long Life Lake in the Japanese Garden is bursting with life. Between the koi, turtles, and a blue heron that fishes there from time to time, there’s always some kind of activity going on, and it’s very nice to see.


Volunteer Partner
UAB Honors College


 

The Honors College at the University of Alabama at Birmingham has had a volunteer presence at the BBG for five years. We spoke with student Emily Deng about the college’s—and her own—commitment to being a Friend of the Gardens.

Q: How did you get involved here?

Emily: I’ve been with the Honors College for four years now, and every year we’ve always come over to the Gardens to volunteer as part of the Honors College Retreat. A lot of students really enjoy getting involved through that. From landscape work to weeding gardens, the projects are different every time, which is very exciting.

Q: What do you find most rewarding?

Emily: Being able to see the fruits of our labors! I distinctly remember working in the Kaul Wildflower Garden clearing paths, and it was crazy to see how much progress we’d made by the end of our shift. Then seeing other visitors’ happy faces when they used the paths felt extra special knowing we helped make it happen.

Q: Who should volunteer here, and why?

Emily: Anyone and everyone who has the time! I think it's good to give back to a place that's open and free for everyone. Birmingham is an urban place and being able to escape to somewhere peaceful, quiet, and full of nature—it almost feels like another world. So it's really relaxing to volunteer here, and it's a good way to recharge and play in the dirt again.

Q: What is your favorite spot in—or aspect of—the Gardens?

Emily: The students as a whole are pretty obsessed with the Japanese Garden, but I think my personal favorite is the Rose Gardens. Nothing beats looking at pretty flowers.

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