National Volunteer Month: San Bernardino County Graduates Take Indoor Learning Out into the Community
April 1 marks the start of National Volunteer Month, a celebration honoring all of the contributions that volunteers make in our communities. This month on the UC Master Gardener Program statewide blog, we will feature stories of educators making a difference in California's community, school, demonstration, and research gardens.
On Saturday, March 7, the UC Master Gardener Program in San Bernardino County welcomed a record number of trainees into the program as UC Master Gardener volunteers. Joined by their families and friends, the trainees held their diplomas high as program coordinator Maggie O'Neill and advisor and co-county director, Janet Hartin offered words of celebration. These 57 volunteers, a historically large class in San Bernardino, have been learning together for 18 weeks … but have never met in person.
"Once things return to whatever the 'new normal' is," says Janet Hartin, "I know they are looking forward to meeting each other face-to-face. Nonetheless, completing an entire training class online during a pandemic is an amazing accomplishment!"
What's more impressive is the impact trainees have already had in their communities, despite the shift to virtual learning. Graduating and first-year UC Master Gardeners volunteers are already helping implement and educate through several community gardens such as the 'Seeds of Joy' garden managed by trainee turned UC Master Gardener volunteer, Elizabeth McSwain. A recent graduate herself, McSwain has championed collaborations between other programs within the UC Cooperative Extension office in San Bernardino County, including the Expanded Food and Nutrition Program (EFNEP) and UC Master Food Preserver Program (MFP). These collaborations have created space for more than a dozen UC Master Gardener Program volunteers and trainees to practice their extension skills.
Several first-year UC Master Gardener volunteers are current or former K-12 educators and administrators. These instructors and education leaders were excited to become UC Master Gardener volunteers after seeing firsthand how UC Master Gardeners support school gardens and provide garden-based teacher training for classroom instructors. Now, these graduates will apply their strong knowledge of the opportunities and challenges of classroom learning to strengthen school garden partnerships. Many of these new UC Master Gardener volunteers led a recent Zoom workshop titled 'ABCs of School and Community Gardens.' Hartin was ecstatic about the school garden partnerships and momentum. "We're so grateful they chose to expand their knowledge of horticulture to administrators and other teachers in their districts and beyond," says Hartin.
In addition to extension and education, the first-year UC Master Gardener volunteers in San Bernardino are already providing leadership through the UCCE and Inland Empire Resource Conservation District partnership to enhance tree canopies and combat urban heat islands and climate change in underserved neighborhoods in North Redlands. They collect primary research, help tree recipients select the right tree for the right location, and provide education on long-term tree care. Many participated in the 'Trees for Tomorrow Start Today' Zoom workshop, which brought together over 300 planners, green industry professionals, and concerned residents who are working together to help abate climate change, cool urban heat islands, and enhance health through proper tree selection and care.
The strength of the UC Master Gardener Program is its volunteers and their ties to their communities. The first-year UC Master Gardeners volunteers in San Bernardino County represent the county's rich ethnic and cultural diversity, more than any previous graduating class. These newly minted garden educators bring essential skills, knowledge, and feedback not fully heard before, "deepening the quality and meaningfulness of our outreach significantly," notes Janet Hartin.
Program coordinator, Maggie O'Neill wholeheartedly agrees. "Our Master Gardener program volunteers work hard to extend gardening information to every corner of the county and make gardening accessible for all. San Bernardino County's UC Master Gardener volunteers have rich and varied backgrounds, but the one thing they all have in common is a passion for sharing what they love about gardening with the public. Whether their passions are with the science of gardening, or sharing how to grow fresh fruits, veggies, and herbs with those of us in need (...and that's all of us... we all need fresh produce!), or showcasing the garden can be a place of healing and renewal - our volunteers create a tapestry of educators that can work to elevate the people of our county."
2020 and 2021 challenged the UC Master Gardener Program in San Bernardino (and statewide) to shift the way we help people, exploring the possibilities that new technology brings. The new UC Master Gardener volunteers in San Bernardino are already demonstrating their ability to grow connections with non-profits, organizations, schools, community gardens, and grassroots organizations serving the County's residents online and off. O'Neill put it best in her closing comments, "We are each a part of the puzzle and together can do great things. Some of you can do things with your hands and can build great things in the community, some of you can speak the language of the heart, and you can heal, and some of you have great scientific minds and can extend knowledge."
Join us in welcoming the UC Master Gardener in San Bernardino County Class of 2021 to the UC Master Gardener Program community. Virtual hats off to all volunteers and trainees throughout the state who made this and other online training possible - Thank you!
During National Volunteer Month (April 1 - 30), the UC Master Gardener Program celebrates its 6,000 incredible UC Master Gardener volunteers and their contributions to California communities. In addition to stories like this one, honoring the people, who help make online UC Master Gardener Program training successful, we will feature stories of special volunteers or Gardeners with Heart from across the state. Gardeners with Heart volunteers were nominated by their local county leadership for their stewardship of the UC Master Gardener Program during the pandemic period, their diversity equity and inclusion leadership, and their digital superstardom. To nominate a Gardener with Heart in your program or county, complete this online survey.
Special appreciation to UC Master Gardener program coordinator in San Bernardino (Maggie O'Neill) and advisor and co-county director in San Bernardino (Janet Hartin) for sharing this story.