John Irwin was raised in rural Texas and started volunteering at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center to help others connect to nature while enjoying native plants. But like many others, the retired IBM engineer has found the connections he's made with fellow volunteers have become as big a draw. Irwin has dedicated 11 years of time to the Center because he "fell in love with the friendships" he's made here.
He is part of a network of 371 dedicated individuals who help with many activities, drawn by the opportunities for interaction and the meaningful volunteer experiences at the Center. This year, hardworking, dedicated supporters collectively gave 28,000 hours of their time to the Center, for which they were recognized at a Volunteer Appreciation Dinner October 30.
Most volunteers have supported the Center's activities for five years or more - a long time in the volunteer world.
"Volunteers are a huge part of the success story of the Center, and we hope that they feel nurtured themselves as they help us in so many ways," said Volunteer Services Manager and former volunteer Carrie McDonald. "A sense of community is likely one reason why our volunteers often stay with us so long."
The sense of community extends beyond the Center's garden walls. "We take care of them and the volunteers take care of each other ... if one of them has surgery, the other volunteers visit and bring them food in the hospital." said McDonald, noting that her predecessors helped establish this mutually-beneficial relationship.
What else does the Wildflower Center do to help volunteers feel appreciated? In addition to breaks where they can gather to share lemonade and stories, McDonald also provides potluck lunches, field trips, enrichment opportunities and a simple scheduling process, as well as matching volunteers' skill sets to Center needs. She adds, "Their contribution is critical to keeping the doors open - we wouldn't be here without them."
Wanda Lancaster, a retired event coordinator for the University of Southwest-Georgetown began working at the Wildflower Center 22 years ago out of admiration for Lady Bird's generosity in establishing it. She remains active for many reasons, including the beautiful surroundings. Her exquisite wildflower arrangements decorate the Center's administrative offices and the café.
"I always tell everyone I work at the most exciting place in Austin," Lancaster said.
McDonald serves as the anchor for the volunteer community and ensures their needs are met as they help maintain the gardens and hiking trails, or work in the store or Visitor's Gallery. Volunteers also help in the horticulture department or collect seeds for plant studies. Docents, who are specially trained volunteers, lead visitor tours and give speeches at special events.
Without the volunteers' efforts, McDonald noted that most day-to-day activities, such as visitor tours and garden maintenance, would become difficult to manage. She and other staff try to ensure that volunteers' hard work is noticed.
"We receive recognition, we're not treated like another free worker," said Pamela Welson, who oversees the bloom cart (a daily sample of flowers for the Visitor's Gallery).
To give back to volunteers such as Welson in Lady Bird Johnson fashion, the Wildflower Center each year hosts a Fall Appreciation Dinner. That night, individuals who have worked 100 hours or more this year are receive awards and are formally recognized for their tireless efforts.
"The volunteers bring joy and teamwork to the Center. Their strong work ethic is an example to all of us," said Carrie McDonald. "I think Lady Bird Johnson would very be proud of our volunteers and everything they've helped accomplish."