A Cut Above
Local Master Gardeners Receive Awards For Their Volunteer Work
By: Kathryn Purcell
On a 35-acre patch of land in Rutledge called Lazy H Farms lives, ironically, one of the least lazy women in the county, if not the planet.
On a much smaller patch of land on the other side of the county lives one of the most modest men in the area, ditto the planet.
The two Morgan County residents--Jewel Hatcher and Dick Whelan--shared top honors awarded by the eight-county Lake Country Master Gardeners Association (LCMGA) this month. Hatcher was named Gardener of the Year for her work on Plant-a-Row for the Hungry in Morgan County. Whelan was Volunteer of the Year due to his efforts on multiple local gardening projects: Crossroads School, the Steffen Thomas Museum and, further afield, Lockerly Arboretum in Milledgeville and Habitat for Humanity in Atlanta.
Sherry Deaton of Greene County was also volunteer of the year for her work on the gardens and landscape at Circle of Love, a facility for abused spouses.
"All Master Gardeners have to put in a minimum number of volunteer hours and most typically go above that pretty handily," says LCMGA Treasurer/Secretary Bob Lee. "Every year we struggle because some people do some very, very nice work. But these award winners do what we call an awful lot of above and beyond."
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A Gardener called 'Pops':
It's all about Educating the Children
His name is Richard Whelan, but everyone calls him "Pops" and right in the middle of his interview, he reaches into his wallet to take out an array of photos. He'd much rather talk about the grandkids who gave him that nickname than discuss the hard work that won him Volunteer of the Year for the LCMGA.
He doesn't want to expound much on his impressive volunteer resume that includes teaching and gardening all over the county and beyond...how he's helped students install an herb and rock garden at Crossroads School in Madison, taught winter garden workshops for Habitat for Humanity homeowners, led a recent class for Israeli children in Atlanta. But he's quick to say why he does it.
"It's payback time. Because God is good to me," Whelan says.
And who he does it for.
"I think our primary purpose is to educate children. They're the only people that count. Adults have made up their minds already. We can still train children to love gardening, that's our purpose."
Master Gardeners are required to give 50 volunteer hours the first year they are certified. Every year after, the minimum is 25 hours.
"I reported 270 last year," Whelan says. He admitted with a dismissive wave of his hand that the number was probably 400-plus because he only counted hands-on time. He didn't log time spent planning, shopping for and organizing his projects.
As one of the LCMGA's longest standing members, Whelan is well-known for his presence on many gardening projects in the area. "The fact that he has been involved and active since 1998 makes a statement in and of itself," LCMGA's Lee says. "Sometimes people get a bug to do something and it only lasts a few years. It takes that extra drive to stick with it for as long as he has. He consistently volunteers. If anyone needs anything, you can be sure that Dick is at the head of the list to help."
"With the economy as it is, I think we're going to have more people driven back to the earth again."
Whelan, a Korean War Army vet and a retiree from US Steel, has experienced so much in his travels and in his lifetime but says that little can compare to the quiet and solitude of gardening.
"If all else fails, go out and dig in the dirt," he says.
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From the Ground Up: Grassroots Gardening feeds Local Hungry
One minute Hatcher is handing out a bag of turnips, the next minute, she's reaching across the table, grasping a woman's hands and closing her eyes to pray. Veggies, hugs and prayers. Just another day in the life of "The Vegetable Lady." You'll find her most Friday mornings in the vicinity of the Caring Place food pantry with her trusty team of volunteers, handing out fresh food for those in need.
It took 14 years, hundreds of gardens, thousands of gardeners and millions of pounds of food for the Plant-a-Row (PAR) concept to reach Morgan County. Hatcher launched from there at a weed's top speed. From first hearing mention of PAR at her Master Gardener's meeting to her first cases of vegetables delivered to those in need took just six weeks. In her inaugural year PAR helped 782 families in Morgan County. Last year, thanks to an extended growth season through staggered planting and Hatcher drafting four more farms to participate in the project, that number more than doubled to 1,613, equating to 6, 432 people eating fresh, locally grown food for absolutely no cost.
It's the ultimate grassroots outreach program--both for those wanting to help and those needing help. Word of mouth has brought a steady stream of worker bees to help prepare, plant, maintain, harvest and distribute the food. And as the news has spread and the economy has soured, there has been an increasing demand for the result.
Hatcher cannot rave enough about her many volunteers but seems particularly proud of all the student groups involved in the project. "Did you know youth who volunteer just one hour a week are 50 percent less likely to be involved in destructive behavior?" she asks. Kids from Shiloh and Carpenter/Centennial homeschool groups, the Boy Scouts, juvenile justice first-time offenders the Madison-Morgan County Boys & Girls Club, have come, some in their spare time, to lend a hand somewhere along the food chain. The biggest contributor, Morgan County High School, includes five different school groups in the effort--Future Farmers of America, horticulture and agriculture classes, special needs classes and 4-H.
Ag instructor Tim Savelle played a hands-on role in securing another garden that could contribute food. He was able to negotiate using the garden portion of the Lindsey family's land adjacent to the school, the start of the PAR Community Garden. The school eventually purchased the entire property. "Our motivation as a youth organization attached to a school is to keep a chief focus on volunteerism," Savelle says. "We stress the importance of contributing to the community in many ways. We're trying to meet a need as it's obvious we have people in our community that don't have enough to eat."
Savelle says a top PAR benefit is distributing fresh local produce at its most nutritious peak. "We produce for quality," he says. "Crops that ship for somewhere else produce for mass quantity. And frankly, there are certain processes done to those vegetables...Tomatoes grown here wouldn't last being shipped 3,000 miles. They're much better and better for you fresh, eaten right here."
The idea for PAR fell in Hatcher's lap just as her shrub landscape business was drying up. "With the drought, it was like God saying 'go do it'…which was always what I wanted to do. I didn't know what I would do–I just always knew it would be Christ-related."
Hatcher feels a kinship with those she helps. When she says she understands what they're going through, it's because she's been there. "I grew up on Social Security. When I was in the first grade, my dad had a massive cerebral hemorrhage, he was almost comatose for 12 years. So we struggled. My mom couldn't work because she was taking care of my dad. He couldn't walk, he couldn't feed himself. I have a lot of compassion, naturally, that comes from my mom's side. Between that and growing up, I knew that need was there."
Cynthia Vessel is one of five women who Jewel calls her "full-time volunteers."
"My pastor says 'You may not have money, but try to give back.' There's no sense sitting home...Help somebody," Vessel says.
Hatcher loves that they are helping others help themselves. Using an informal survey of those PAR has served, recipients report an average of 85 percent improvement to their weekly diets.
"It's really a multi-faceted project," says LCMGA's Lee. "Jewel's leadership on that program--planting, harvesting, going to different businesses to get their help and materials--it's a lot of active organization. It takes real leadership because it does involve such a broader number of people." She recently went to Oxford University. "Word has gotten out. She's become a bit of an authority on the subject. It doesn't take much to wind her up, she loves to talk about the project."
The Lake Country Master Gardeners Association's mission is to use their Master Gardener training and Extension Office resources to provide volunteer assistance to citizens in the eight counties surrounding Lake Oconee and Lake Sinclair. For information on joining, please contact club president Jim Davis at (706) 485-7384 or e-mail email@example.com.
Published in the January 29, 2009 edition.