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The SLO Botanical Garden's wide net of volunteers shows community members' green thumbs

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AmeriCorps member Peter Sarracino knows his volunteering days at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden are limited, but it's an experience he plans to draw from for the rest of his life.

"If I'm in this area as a teacher, I'll definitely use it as a resource and a component in the classroom. But also, wherever I end up, a botanical garden nearby would be a huge resource to bring the kids and let them see the natural world through that lens," he said.

Sarracino wants to enroll in graduate school to be a trained elementary school teacher. But he also felt the calling to volunteer with AmeriCorps, which not only gave him time to save money for higher education but also introduced him to the SLO Botanical Garden.

Nestled in the heart of California, which has the highest natural botanical diversity in the country, the garden is one of the only facilities dedicated entirely to plants from global Mediterranean climate zones.

PITCH IN Karen Darger is among the roughly 500 volunteers who help the SLO Botanical Garden with maintenance and many other tasks. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO BOTANICAL GARDEN
  • Photo Courtesy Of SLO Botanical Garden
  • PITCH IN Karen Darger is among the roughly 500 volunteers who help the SLO Botanical Garden with maintenance and many other tasks.

Ever since the idea for a SLO Botanical Garden germinated in 1989, the garden has highlighted introducing native plants to communities as they occur in nature. Its website mentions a host of services such as water conservation and green energy, botanical research, and housing a horticultural library.

But the botanical garden's roots lie in its expansive volunteering program, which ranges from conducting garden maintenance to leading educational tours for the public. As AmeriCorps fellows, Sarracino and his peer Megan LePage are two of the garden's newer volunteer services leaders who joined in August 2021. Without volunteers, Sarracino and LePage said that SLO County would miss out on being more aware of the nature preserved in El Chorro Regional Park—and the garden itself wouldn't exist.

"We would lose an opportunity to learn about the natural environment of the Central Coast. We're a part of the Chorro county regional park. The land here was formerly part of the National Guard, and it was ranch land prior to that," Sarracino said. "It would likely either be closed off or be a part of the impressive trail network of SLO County, but there would be no exhibits of native plants and other Mediterranean plants educating people about what they are and our relationship to them."

Volunteering at the garden usually happens in two-hour sessions, five days a week, depending on the department that people wish to join. LePage said that most volunteers arrive early in the morning to help out while the weather is still cool.

"We average around a 1,000 volunteer hours a month. During the lower periods, it's 800 to 900 hours. During the higher periods it can get up to 1,300," LePage said.

LePage is training to be a docent, an educational guide who provides free tours to public. Her time with the SLO Botanical Garden helped her discover that she wants a career where she has front row seats to study plants.

"I also have realized how important it is to have a job that's really fulfilling and serving the community in some way. Right before I left for the holidays, a little boy ran up to me at the children's garden and said, 'I really like it here,'" she said. "I was kind of amazed because I don't know if at that age I would have run up to somebody and been as open and compassionate about a place I was just visiting."

SLO Botanical Garden's extensive volunteering network spans seven departments. Some of them, like garden and facilities maintenance, are tasks volunteers learn in the field. Others, like office assistance and marketing, require previous experience. Currently limited to just the two of them, Sarracino and LePage told New Times that the volunteer services department could benefit from expansion given the sheer range of available activities. Before their 11-month term is up this summer, the pair hopes to set up a volunteer training program to streamline management.

"Our biggest hurdle is the various different ways the volunteers have engaged with the garden and reconciling them into one uniform structure," Sarracino said.

One of the more outside-the-box volunteer programs is the option for county residents who must fulfill court-mandated community service activities to choose the SLO Botanical Garden.

"It's something that they can do that's not your standard 'picking up the trash on the highway' kind of thing. I hope that it's more interesting for them. We can build a connection with somebody who may not have come to volunteer before and now is enjoying it and becoming part of the community," Sarracino said.

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic completely shut down the botanical garden from April to May 2020, LePage said that volunteers soon returned because so many of their activities are outdoor-centric.

"It's a funny juxtaposition: Our higher-risk volunteers declined, and then probably more young people [joined]. Now, it's kinda leveling out. A lot of our retired, more sensitive population is coming back," Sarracino said.

The volunteering duo is gearing up for Free Day at the botanical garden on Jan. 17 where community members, especially children, can explore nature and enjoy a guided walk at no cost.

One way to make the event and future happenings run smoothly? Sign up to volunteer.

"Learning about plants connects you to human history, cultural history, and science. It's an avenue into engaging with the world in a more serious way," Sarracino said. "If you want to learn about your local environment, or what you can do about climate change, or what you can do in your own life just to be healthier, the garden is a great place to start.

"I really became a new person when I started learning about different plants and our connections to them." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.

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