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Growing a Love of Gardens: Welcoming a new generation of volunteers

Around the Gardens Blog

As young people navigate the challenges of a digital world, the Gardens play an increasingly important role in connecting children and young adults with nature

Experts estimate that Americans now spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors, with U.S. children ages  8-12 spending an average 4-6 hours a day watching or using screens, and teens spending up to 9 hours. The trend has been shown to impact our health and well-being in negative ways; it also puts our connection with nature, gardens, and the practice of gardening at risk. Where there are challenges, however, we also find opportunity.

Here, our volunteer coordinator and our director of education and visitor experience highlight two new ways that our programming is expanding to encourage young people to discover the Gardens’ wonders. 

Welcoming a new generation of volunteers

By Alice Thompson Moore

YEARS AGO, the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ General Garden Group adopted the motto “Have Shovel, Will  Travel.” Nowadays, their motto could be “Have Shovel, Will Teach” as members of the group have stepped up to lead and train our college- and high school-age volunteers. After working with group lead Hope Cooper, University of Alabama student Carlie Walker commented, “I really enjoyed the environment and the people around me. It was neat to hear stories from people who have been volunteering for 10 to 20 years.”  

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) student organization Students Empowering Humanity in Alabama (SEHA) reached out to us about volunteering at the Gardens and have benefited from being mentored by Hope and fellow Friends volunteer group leader John Markus.

Members of SEHA wanted to learn how to grow vegetables and have assisted with the planting of the Bruno Vegetable Garden as well as with garden-maintenance projects.

In return, they have gained knowledge, connections, and even plants to start their own garden at a Birmingham-area transitional home for youth. UAB student volunteer Christian Hill observed, “Volunteering at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens was surprisingly quite fun. In addition to expanding my knowledge of horticulture, I gradually found myself more and more interested in it. Unexpectedly, I started getting a sense of pride in the Gardens themselves, recognizing that not only does such a beautiful garden have a home in Birmingham but also I was able to help maintain it.”

During the past two years, the Friends has embraced a rapid increase in young adult volunteerism as college and high school students like Carlie and Christian seek to learn more about their environment while also giving back to their community.  

For the 2021–2022 school year, the Birmingham Branch of Alliance of Youth Leaders in the United States (AYLUS)  signed on to work in the Gardens’ Pollinator Display and Bruno Vegetable Garden. Hailing from schools throughout the Birmingham metropolitan area, AYLUS members worked and learned about gardening with the guidance of lead volunteers and staff.  

Examples like this abound. From January through October, the Friends offered a total of 72 volunteer opportunities for student groups all over the country. As student groups get involved here, they bring new life to the Gardens in multiple ways.

For some, their visit is not only their first time at the Gardens  but also their first trip to Alabama. As part of the Alternative Spring Break program, college students from universities in Illinois spread mulch and pine straw throughout our Gardens. Students from Western Kentucky University learned about native plants and biodiversity while working in the Kaul Wildflower Garden.

Local universities also provide support with biannual volunteer service days such as Samford Gives Back and UAB Into the Streets. These large-scale volunteer projects often inspire students to come back and learn more.  

UAB serves as a cornerstone of our partnerships with multiple student organizations and programs volunteering for events and garden projects. Prateek “Yash” Mishra volunteered through the UAB Honors College during the height of the pandemic. Yash stayed on helping with the General Garden  Group, learning and assisting in recruiting new volunteers.

As a student leader, Yash planned bimonthly volunteer opportunities as part of the Serve205 program, bringing students to the Bruno Vegetable Garden to work with Master Gardeners and lead volunteers for the General Garden Group. A student driven initiative, Serve205 gives young adults at UAB the  opportunity to assist in the Birmingham community while supporting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.  

Writing about his experience with the Serve205 program, student Elijah Walls said, “Volunteering with Serve205 at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens was an AMAZING experience. The atmosphere was so much fun, and everyone present was so passionate about making a difference in the community.” UAB student Suhas Kellampalli was inspired to return with his own organization, MedLife, which seeks to combat poverty “by bringing medicine, education, and safe housing to low-income families.”

MedLife student volunteers have assisted at plant sales and in multiple garden projects, including the Bruno Vegetable Garden. Says Suhas, “I enjoy volunteering with the Botanical Gardens not only because the crops produced are donated to local community kitchens but also because there is something inherently satisfying in getting your hands in the soil and contributing to the growth of new plants.”

Enjoy getting to know our volunteers? Read more stories in the summer 2022 issue of The Garden Dirt, the award-winning quarterly newsletter of the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Become a member of the Friends of Birmingham Botanical Gardens and receive future issues of The Garden Dirt and other great benefits. Thank you for supporting the Gardens and all that it makes possible through your annual membership, donations, and plant sale purchases!