by Trystan Popish
When talking about growth at Denver Botanic Gardens, most people’s minds automatically go to the spectacular horticulture displays of rare and native plants that bring thousands of people to the Gardens each year. As one of the staff people who doesn’t work with plants at the Gardens, however, I tend to reflect on the growth we see in the Gardens’ people instead.
As a volunteer coordinator at the Gardens, I work with a variety of volunteers. Most are adults who have retired and are looking for a sense of community and purpose after finishing their careers, but some are just starting out and searching for what they want to do when they “grow up”—namely, the teen volunteers.
The Gardens’ teen volunteer program began in 2012 with a few positions for teens helping the Education Department staff in the summer. From there, it has grown by leaps and bounds, with 117 teens contributing more than 4,600 hours of service in summer 2019 and working at both the Gardens’ locations with education, visitor services, horticulture and interpretation.
Instead of welcoming over a hundred teen volunteers this summer at both locations of the Gardens, we created an entirely new virtual program to keep teens engaged from a distance during the pandemic.
The Summer Teen Volunteer Program also spawned an entirely new program at the Gardens for teens in 2016: the Gardens Teen Leaders. The Gardens Teen Leaders (GTL) is a small, dedicated group of teen volunteers from throughout the Denver metro area that meet during the school year. These teens help the Gardens create and improve volunteer opportunities for teens; go behind the scenes and explore different career paths by working with staff from all over the Gardens; and contribute valuable, visible service that supports the Gardens’ institutional mission of connecting people with plants. Previous service projects completed by the GTL include creating the Gardens’ first ever teen volunteer handbook, planning the Summer Teen Appreciation Party, and collaborating and filming a video for the website with staff from the Marketing Department.
This year, with all its surprises, teen programming at the Gardens looks different than it has in the past. Instead of welcoming over a hundred teen volunteers this summer at both locations of the Gardens, we created an entirely new virtual program to keep teens engaged from a distance during the pandemic. Teens could choose how to be involved with the Gardens. Some teens attended weekly virtual programs with staff to learn about different aspects of the Gardens’ operations. Some accepted “social media challenge” photography assignments set by our marketing team. Some contributed to scientific research through participating in the Denver EcoFlora Project, a collaboration between Denver Botanic Gardens, New York Botanical Garden, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services to engage citizen scientists with biodiversity in the Denver – Boulder metro area. All contributed valuable service to the Gardens and garnered some important professional experience for their budding resumes.
What’s ahead for teen programming at the Gardens? While we grapple this fall with the lingering effects of the pandemic and continue virtual programming, we are also looking at ways to diversify our teen program in the future and offer more ways for teens to be involved. We are hoping to partner with other organizations to find ways to support the involvement of more audiences and to strengthen the program with more diverse voices and perspectives. Please reach out if you have any suggestions for possible partners.
In my three and a half years working with the Gardens teen volunteers, I’ve learned so much. Most importantly, I’ve learned that it’s bittersweet, working with teens. Unlike the more settled adult volunteers, teen volunteers have a habit of growing up and going off to start a new chapter of their lives. But in the time we have with them, it’s a privilege and pleasure to watch them grow. Some teens spend up to five or six years in the volunteer program. As they literally grow taller, we watch as they also grow more experienced, more passionate, and more secure in their sense of self. One of the Gardens’ core values is transformation, and I can think of no better example than supporting the transformation of teens into the adults they are about to become.
For more information about the Gardens’ Teen Volunteer Program, visit
botanicgardens.org/teen-volunteer-programs. Applications are due in the spring (Summer Program) or the summer (Gardens Teen Leaders program).
Trystan Popish is a Volunteer Coordinator with the https://www.botanicgardens.org/
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