The Volunteer Community

White magnolia flowers beginning to bloom

Magnolia buds opening, Longenecker Horticultural Gardens

The Arboretum is a community, made up of many interconnected elements: forests, prairies, visitor center, wetlands – and volunteers everywhere, in Madison, Wisconsin, and across North America. Most of the lands managed by the Arboretum are nestled in Dane County, neighboring Lake Wingra. However, the Arboretum community is entwined throughout Dane County, and in this pandemic year those connections have been more apparent than ever.

During the pandemic, most of the usual volunteer routines, habits, and cycles dissolved. There was no Earth Focus Day Camp with teenage assistants working alongside staff naturalists. There were no spring school groups trooping into the visitor center to be greeted by receptionists. There were no volunteer gardeners in Longenecker Horticultural Gardens or the Wisconsin Native Plant Garden. No student organizations pulling garlic mustard in April or cutting honeysuckle in October. No energetic AmeriCorps NCCC team tackling projects. No Native Plant Sale helpers unloading tray after tray of plants or tallying purchase after purchase. No night hike volunteers at the end of tours ensuring participants returned safely to the visitor center. No scouts fixing boardwalks to earn Eagle Scout status. No bookstore clerks helping grandparents find the perfect picture book for a beloved toddler. No new stewards being trained in spring. It was a year like nothing we’ve lived through before, and an ordeal we hope to emerge from soon.

So what volunteering did happen? How did volunteers step up for the Arboretum and for the broader community? Following COVID precautions, stewards continued to walk the trails, pick up litter, educate visitors, and report findings to the rangers. They were busier than ever as visitation increased and remained very high for months as people explored the Arboretum for exercise, solace, education, and safe outdoor get-togethers.

The Friends of the Arboretum board of directors and committees – all volunteers – transformed their popular in-person Luncheon-Lectures series into virtual Lunchtime Lectures. They recruited new board members and collaborated with development staff to raise crucial funds for Arboretum programs. Citizen scientists volunteered on site, and virtually across North America with Journey North, to monitor birds, bumble bees, and dragonflies; monarch caterpillars and butterflies; bluebird nest boxes; water quality; phenology; and more. The data they gather can deepen scientific knowledge, help monitor natural systems in a time of rapid environmental change, and support findings that can inform conservation practices and policy.

Research volunteers helped on fire ecology studies and database improvements. The restoration team leaders worked with staff to safely continue restoration projects at eight sites during summer, autumn, and winter. They worked solo and, when permitted, in small distanced groups to remove invasive species, collect seeds, and sow seeds.

Most Arboretum volunteers were not able to work with the Arboretum in 2020 for safety reasons, but they poured their energy into other opportunities. Many made masks (at least 400 masks!). Others sought opportunities at food pantries and meal distribution sites. Some virtually tutored students or mentored scouts. To get a sense of the scope of volunteer impact during the pandemic in the Madison area, I asked my fellow volunteer managers to share stories.

Regan Kregness, from Canopy Center Healing and Family Support Service, wrote, “Volunteers have adapted to new and changing safety measures, including meeting with clients virtually and making sure spaces are properly cleaned when offering in-person services to provide a safe space for volunteers, staff, and clients. Our volunteers have stepped up to help Canopy Center as a whole agency outside of their specific volunteer roles. This has included creating videos for Canopy Center’s social media and engaging with our social media accounts, which helps our organization have greater recognition in the community and in turn helps more people to know about the services we provide so more people can get the help they need. We are very grateful for the extended efforts of our volunteers during this time especially!”

“As an essential service, our doors haven’t closed since we opened over three years ago,” shared Lynn Currie of The Beacon. “Through the pandemic, we have had two regular volunteers who are over 80 continue to work in person and, in fact, increase their volunteer hours to continue their service. Since many of our usual volunteers opted out of in-person work, we have been blessed with many volunteers who have joined our team and quickly become part of The Beacon family. This includes two young professionals who have committed to cooking lunch once a month, providing many of the ingredients on their own.”

Katrin Madayag-Ard of Girl Scouts of Wisconsin Badgerland wrote, “We shifted to virtual programming, including summer camps and school year programs. We’ve had dedicated Girl Scout volunteers continue to lead troops in a new virtual environment as well as help with creating at-home kits that complement virtual programming in our key pillars: STEAM, Outdoors/Environmental Stewardship, Life Skills and Entrepreneurship/Financial Literacy.  We’ve had Girl Scouts give service back to the council assisting with projects, too. Other new community members, from entrepreneurs to scientists to electricians to UW–Madison Badger Volunteers, have shared their time and expertise as mentors for Girl Scouts in virtual programming.”

According to Nicola Porto, “over the past year, Collaboration Project has seen local churches collaborate like never before! Through the Psalm 46 Fund, a partnership between the African American Council of Churches (AACC) and Lighthouse Church, over 750 individuals, churches, and other organizations helped raise $390,000 in just three months. Funds were distributed back to the community to help hundreds of families pay their bills, provide 6,700 hot lunches to families with children, and much more. The Madison West High Area Collaborative is another beautiful picture of our community working together. The Collective is a partnership that started between Thoreau Elementary School and Cherokee Middle School and used space and some volunteers from Westminster Presbyterian Church to deliver meals to 500 families each week.”

The Lussier Community Education Center (LCEC) created their Support and Solidarity Network last year with the goal of mobilizing neighbors to help neighbors. According to Shawna Lutzow, the LCEC “did something called ‘Pledge my Check,’ where community members donated stimulus checks and the money went to program families. For the most recent stimulus checks, we partnered with Centro Hispano so families from both the LCEC and Centro Hispano were eligible to receive a bonus stimulus check from generous donors. And we definitely have had some rock star volunteers throughout this. Some stayed through thick and thin, some stepped back to stay safe, and some joined during the pandemic. Our volunteers keep our food pantry going. Pre-COVID, we averaged 10–13 shoppers, and now we prepare for 30 shoppers each time. We do curbside service, so volunteers help with getting pre-bagged and boxed items into shoppers’ vehicles. Rain, shine, sleet, or snow!”

Leanne Chan, Becky Fabrizio, and Mona Soltani of the Literacy Network of Dane County shared stories of two groups of volunteers that stepped up. “We had a new category of volunteers called Parent Support Volunteers. When 73 percent of parent learners requested support with their children’s virtual learning, these volunteers mobilized within two weeks to provide individual check-in phone calls and peer-to-peer-support Zoom calls. Volunteers responded to learners’ needs to communicate with school staff, develop virtual school routines, and reduce stress. One learner shared, ‘I learned how to write an email to the teachers, also how to communicate with them. It has helped me.’”

“We had fifteen citizenship tutors actively engaged in the citizenship tutoring program since the beginning of the pandemic. All tutoring transitioned to being remote, and citizenship tutors mostly use WhatsApp and Zoom to work with their learners. Our citizenship tutors did an outstanding job working with students and preparing students for their naturalization tests despite the current situation and challenges.”

“At WORT 89.9 FM community radio, on-air volunteers learned to produce programming remotely, a process that involved a steep learning curve and making adaptations such as recording from a closet or underneath a blanket to reduce echo,” wrote Glenn Mitroff. “Volunteers producing the Insurgent Radio Kiosk (a four-minute prerecorded community announcement segment) provided rapidly changing information about the pandemic by recording nearly every day instead of once a week. On-air news and public affairs hosts learned to host from their own homes. New volunteers were recruited, placed, on-boarded. and trained without ever stepping into the station.”

Finally, at the Henry Vilas Zoo, around the Lake Wingra shoreline from the Arboretum, Lauren Salzmann says volunteers “came back after four months of closure. They began the battle for the beds by weeding like crazy. In a few short weeks they turned the one-way path into a beautiful and relaxing visit for our guests and staff.

“I talked to one guest, an older woman, who was visiting for the first time. She had traveled from South Carolina early in the pandemic and gotten stranded at her family’s house in Madison. She had been here for a month while several of her friends passed away from COVID back in S.C. She was crying as she told me how beautiful our gardens were. She was an avid gardener. Seeing the flowers blooming and so well cared for made her so happy even among all her losses.

“Our gardening volunteers come in early and do amazing work but don’t get as noticed since they’re not guest-facing. Their work is noticed by everyone, though. It really does make all the difference in the world for some of us.”

Volunteers make a world of difference, across the Arboretum and across the world. This was true before and during the pandemic, and will be true once it is over. Thanks to all of you who volunteer.

—Judy Kingsbury, volunteer coordinator