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Week of July 11, 2011

Volunteer spirit powers MBGNA

After working in purchasing and distribution at Ford Motor Co. for 32 years, Ron Heames retired. But his days of service were far from over.

Heames approached Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum (MBGNA) about volunteer opportunities. At first he gave one day a week, then after a year he asked the volunteer coordinator if he could increase his hours. Since then, Heames, who works in the display gardens and as a greenhouse assistant, averages 400 volunteer hours a year.

“I love it. I spend a lot of time outdoors and in off-seasons I do greenhouse work,” he says. “I’m not a gardener by hobby, so I’ve learned a lot about plants and flowers. And I get a real sense of accomplishment.” In the corporate world the results of one’s labors are sometimes difficult to see, Heames explains. “Here, I can see the results.”

Heames is among more than 1,900 volunteers who help MBGNA employees manage 700 acres of gardens, research areas and natural preserves around the Ann Arbor area. Of these volunteers, 400 regularly offer assistance throughout the year. In the 2009-10 fiscal year, volunteers donated 15,557 hours of service to MBGNA, says Tara Griffith, volunteer coordinator at MBGNA.

Heames works three days a week, four hours a day. During the warm months, he spends his time working with a horticulturalist tending to the Gateway Garden of New World Plants and the Alexandra Hicks Herb Knot Garden. In the winter, he assists in the greenhouse.

“I wanted to do something that contributed in some small way while enjoying what I was doing,” says Heames, an Ann Arbor resident who lives close to MBGNA. “I’m fortunate enough to have the time to come over and work on what’s necessary.”

Volunteers are an essential component to operating MBGNA, Griffith says.

Ron Heames volunteers in the herb garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum. Heames is among more than 1,900 MBGNA volunteers. Photo by Courtesy Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum.

“We could not accomplish our mission without the support of volunteers — whether they are pulling weeds in our display gardens, tackling invasive plant species in our natural areas or providing an educational tour for one of our many school groups,” Griffith says. “The continued support and enthusiasm that our volunteers bring is a constant inspiration to our staff, and we’re fortunate to have built a dedicated community of kindred volunteer spirits here at the Arb & Gardens.”

Another popular space to volunteer at is the Gaffield Children’s Garden, which opened to the public in fall 2009. It offers a unique area for learning and discovery that gives youngsters an opportunity to reconnect with nature in a playful way, Griffith says. The garden features more than a dozen special spaces including a natural builders garden; a habitat garden for exploring and imagining the homes of wild animals; a garden for attracting and encouraging butterflies; and secret spaces for children to find and create their own places in the garden. Volunteers help to maintain the themed gardens, lead special children’s activities and also act as ambassadors to visitors of all ages.

Merrie Malerich of Ann Arbor has volunteered as a docent for youth and scout programs since she retired in 1998.

“There are so many reasons for volunteering,” she says. “As I help, I, too, learn about plants, nature and people. Furthermore, I like knowing that I can make a difference in how children and adults view their world, as my scout and 4-H leaders did in mine.”

Over the years, Malerich’s volunteer activities have included weeding, planting, committee meetings, special events and docent tours. But the best part is the people she encounters at MBGNA.

“The staff members are extremely knowledgeable and willing to share their expertise. They respect you as you are and appreciate your help,” she says. “In kind, I like to see my knowledge and great enthusiasm for nature transferred to others through tours, plant sales, community events, neighbors and friends.”

Retiree Tim Schaffer considers volunteering at MBGNA his “dream job.”

He volunteers in two areas: Natural Areas and Woody Plants, and with the Native Plants group. Work in these areas is hands-on, putting plants into the ground, tending to them once they are there and occasionally pulling them out, as well.

Schaffer, who started volunteering with MBGNA more than two years ago, says his desire to give back led him to donate time to the gardens.

“It’s payback time,” he says. “And I love every minute of it. My wife and I have enjoyed MBGNA for quite some time and it finally registered that all this wonderfulness doesn’t just happen by itself.

“I like being able to work outdoors and learn things I never dreamt of knowing thanks to the knowledgeable interns, staff and other volunteers with whom I work.”

Typically, people who wish to volunteer contact MBGNA by phone or e-mail. Griffith will conduct a brief phone interview then invite them to attend a new volunteer orientation. At this time also she will ask them to submit a volunteer application. Griffith will assess if they will need to attend an additional training based on the volunteer job, such as a docent or ambassador. Special service projects for groups also can be arranged with advanced notice. 

Volunteer opportunities are available in all departments including horticulture, natural areas, marketing, membership, education and visitor services. A complete listing of volunteer opportunities, along and applications for individuals and groups, is available under “Get Involved” at



Julie Fremuth, conservator, Clements Library, on finding inspiration in old handwritten papers: “I will try to connect to that person who made the handwriting by painting on top of it, with a lot of washes and a lot of layers. I like to connect to a stranger who struggles like I do.”