On any given Thursday, Lorrie and Gregg Wilkins who can be found at a red cart near the north end of Selby Gardens. As year-round volunteers manning the Gardens’ “Ask Me Cart,” the husband and wife delight in meeting new people and introducing them to some of the plants and trees in the surrounding area.
“I will smile and ask them, ‘Have you seen the Crucifixion Orchids?’,“ Lorrie Wilkins says. “If they haven’t, I’ll take them over and show them.”
The Wilkins are just two of the 600-plus volunteers who logged 62,962 hours of service in 2016 at Selby Gardens. That service translates to about 32 full-time positions.
“Non-profit organizations cannot survive without their passionate volunteers. Marie Selby Botanical Gardens is no exception,” says Vera Neumann-Wood, the Gardens’ volunteer manager. “Volunteers are a fundamental piece of the puzzle. They provide the backbone assistance, commitment, support and energy needed for Selby Gardens to thrive.”
While some volunteers work behind the scenes, providing support in the Administration Building, tending plants in the greenhouses and assisting the botanists who identify and catalog plants, many others are on the front line, tasked with making sure visitors enjoy Selby Gardens.
Gregg Wilkins says he and Lorrie always try to find answers to visitors’ questions. If someone asks about a plant he isn’t familiar with, he will look it up on the internet. The Wilkins also bring along binoculars so they can point out ospreys, herons and other birds that populate Sarasota Bay.
They try to go the extra mile to provide the best customer service. For example, they encountered one family from Germany with limited English skills. The Wilkins called a German-speaking friend who served as a translator so they could answer the visitors’ questions.
The Wilkins, who are avid gardeners, say the rewards of their volunteer work include deepening their knowledge of plants and gardening, drawing on the expertise of the professional botanists and horticulturalists on staff, meeting people from around the world and simply spending time in an ever-changing environment of beautiful plants and flowers.
Another volunteer, Mary Powers, adds a spiritual dimension to the visitors’ experience. A former environmental education teacher and a three-time cancer survivor, she combines her passion for conservation with her belief that the Gardens bring healing, hope and renewal, and she imparts both to the guests who join her weekly 30-minute Walk and Talk tours. Powers’ tour includes a discussion of the Gardens’ aesthetics, the scientific aspects of Selby Gardens’ work and the spiritual value of communing with nature.
“That half hour is so important to them getting a full appreciation for the Gardens,” she says. “My main goal is to get them interested in and further their education in rain forest plants and the rainforest itself.”
She also wants visitors to appreciate what she sees as the healing aspects of visiting the Gardens. She tells the story of the Bo Tree of India, the same kind of tree under which Buddha is said to have meditated and attained his enlightenment. In 2001, Selby’s giant Bo was uprooted during a storm, but it was saved by a major staff and community effort.
“I encourage people to meditate under the Bo tree because 15 years later the tree is doing so well,” Powers says. “It brings me back to what a garden can do for you in terms of your soul and your blood pressure.”
The Wilkins and Powers illustrate what Neumann-Wood describes as the value of volunteers who bring diverse interests and perspectives to the Gardens.
“Volunteers bring a bag full of experiences and diversity so much needed for our organization to shine,” she says. “As their Volunteer Coordinator, I feel grateful and very lucky to be surrounded by so much enthusiasm, knowledge and vigor.”