On February 19-20, 2015, the Michigan Master Gardener Volunteer Program took a cautious but determined step forward toward bringing new life to an already invaluable statewide community service program. No such program is, or ever will be, perfect; but on those two days in DeWitt, Michigan, strong hands pulled this one to a new level by its bootstraps.
Special Kudos to the following:
- Dr Ray Hammerschmidt, MSU Extension (MSUE) Director, for his presence on a busy day, and his inspiring talk reassuring all of the Extension's strong support for the program
- Mary Wilson, State Coordinator, MSUE Master Gardener Program, for her continuing dedication, superb leadership, and unflagging positive energy in the face of unstable funding in recent years
- Bonnie Wichtner-Zoia and Claire Bode, MSUE Educators, for their outstanding work as facilitators--they managed to keep a rowdy crowd on track!
- The entire Board of the Michigan Master Gardener Association for strengthening ties among Master Gardeners throughout the state and financially supporting their activities
Attendees at the conference addressed five different but interrelated critical issues, with preliminary assessments described below.
Participants believed relationships among all levels of Master Gardener (MG) program participants would profit from careful rebuilding. The program has suffered by losing many of its former MG Volunteers, who have failed to obtain recertification, in many cases because they have found the costs in time and money needed to recertify were prohibitive. Providing value to those individuals in the form of encouragement and rewards, and simplifying recertification requirements, were seen as possible stimuli in regaining their participation.
More thorough and timely communication among all parts of the MG program, including consistent guidelines for volunteer and educational hour reporting, were considered desirable. Major improvements in the usability of the Volunteer Management System (VMS) program were sought in the form of enhanced mentorship of VMS Ambassadors from the state level and application of more consistent guidelines. Adding new functionality to the VMS should result in more MG Volunteer appreciation of its utility.
Participants recognized and appreciated the great integrity consistently demonstrated by MG program participants at all levels. Strategies to improve equality in the actual delivery of program benefits to all portions of Michigan's culturally and economically diverse population included surveying potentially underserved groups and updated program delivery methods. A "marketing plan" was proposed to locate areas of need and solicit feedback on potential program growth in areas now lacking adequate access to the MG program.
Program Delivery/Distance Learning
It was agreed that providing standardized (but also carefully aligned with local needs), top-quality educational materials statewide by multiple delivery methods is at least desirable if not essential to MG program equity and growth. Participants indicated preference for carefully constructed, quality-first introduction of new technology in both initial MG training classes and follow-on educational events. It was felt that stability of new delivery systems after introduction would be very important in encouraging participation among areas now lagging in adoption of up-to-date technology.
It was generally agreed that at least modest increases in overall program funding are needed, but participants generally emphasized the need for improved funding equity and for tapping alternate means of resource acquisition. It was proposed that Master Gardener Volunteers might act as advocates for additional local, state, and federal support; and that the possibility of additional support in the form of corporate sponsorship should be sought. The concept of substituting locally available skill sets from both Master Gardeners and other local area residents was also discussed at length.
Overall, it was a great privilege to participate in an event that opened many possible doors to enhancing and expanding a program offering great opportunities to learn, to work for the betterment of our diverse communities alongside many outstanding people who share our values, and to look toward better future science-based care for the environment in which we live. The MSUE Strategic Vision holds great promise for the future, and it will be exciting to see its results begin to take hold.