The kids were finishing their lunch of pizza when the park visitor invited herself into the Botanical Center’s main room. She wanted to lecture the 11 young people who had spent the morning moving mulch from the back of a dump truck to the many beds of the Botanical Gardens’ Winter Garden. Sweaty, heavy work.
The park visitor wanted to encourage our young volunteers in pursuing their goals in life, and, naturally, had to chronicle for them her many transgressions. She was in recovery mode, she told them, and wrapped up her plea humbly and took her leave.
Whew, that could have gone wrong in any number of ways, but hadn’t.
Our volunteer team was from Kids Across America, a Christian-based camp near Branson where inner city youths and young adults spend a week both in service, such as they had performed that morning, but also in “fun” activities such as sports and recreation opportunities. The mission of the program is “to build Christian leaders by encouraging, equipping, and empowering urban youth and their mentors through camping and education.”
This group was the second Kids Across America contingent to help us in the gardens this season. A previous group had been tasked with planting and weeding duty. They helped remove spent bulbs in the planter behind the Botanical Center and labeling plant pots for a Central Bank event later that day.
The campers in both sessions were from Missouri and several nearby states. Their young adult leaders balanced their supervisory role with their mission, acting as youth pastors, whether that was their vocation or their role in the camp. The structure made for an interesting conversational dialogue, whether between campers or with our botanical garden staff. Discipline was one of the core principles of the program, with a 5 a.m. wake-up leading to a 30-minute Bible study period and then onto a rigorous schedule that may include exercising and would end each evening with a church service.
The KAA program has been around since 1991 and has impacted more than 10,000 young people through the years. It is an offshoot of the Kanakuk Camps, the largest family of Christian sports camps in America. Groups from the camp make annual trips to the Botanical Gardens to volunteer wherever they are needed.
“When planning a volunteer experience, I always try to set the group up for success by avoiding the most extreme weather and finding something with a little fun,” said Katie Keith, Botanical Center coordinator. “The Kids Across America have been partnering with us for nearly a decade and camp weeks seem to correspond to the hottest days of summer and fun projects are few.”
“Their positive energy shines through even when hand-pulling cockleburs from the buffalo grass, moving heavy rock or removing landscape fabric from an established landscape. On a recent service day, one of the participants was pooped on by a bird. Instead of letting that ruin his day, he saw it as a sign of good fortune ahead! They are a true blessing as many hands make light work and their vibrant energy is contagious to our veteran volunteers.”
William Aldrich is FOG’s Garden Volunteer Liaison. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he spent 32 years on the staff of the Chicago Tribune, mostly as an assistant photo editor. He began a freelance sideline as a garden writer in the early ‘80s, became a master gardener with the University of Illinois Extension and founded Chicagoland Gardening Magazine in 1995. As a member of the Garden Writers Association, he served on the national board from 1988-2001, was president in 1998-99, and was named a fellow in 2007. He also served on the Advisory Board of the Chicago Flower & Garden Show and was the seminar manager from 2008-12. He also co-wrote six books for Lone Pine Publishing on gardening in Illinois.
After moving to Springfield, he took the master gardener course and volunteered at the Botanical Gardens where he inherited the rose garden. He continues his volunteer role in the roses and as a master gardener. In 2017, he drove the tram on weekend afternoons and during the week helped in the ticket booth at the Mizumoto Japanese Stroll Garden. In September 2017, he was approached to become the first Garden Volunteer Liaison for FOG.
Last year, the American Horticultural Society approached him to serve as a judge in their annual book awards competition. He has received more than 90 books to review over the last two years and has donated them to the Master Gardeners of Greene County. He will continue his duties for one more year.