"Celebrating Volunteers"

Garden Stewards Plant the Seeds of Civic Engagement

The work of planting flowers at 140 community gardens in 20 counties requires an army of volunteers — more than 10,000, to be specific. In between WPC’s massive garden plantings in the spring and our garden pullouts in the late fall, garden stewards pluck weeds, deadhead flowers and make the maintenance of Conservancy gardens part of their daily lives. The day-to-day efforts of this small group of dedicated garden stewards, combined with the tremendous turnouts of volunteers on planting and pullout days, together make the community gardens that touch so many lives possible.

Helen Eisenman
Helen Eisenman

Helen Eisenman
Helen Eisenman has spent the past 13 years cultivating civic pride in Oil City, where she lives. This grandmother of nine helped get WPC’s Community Gardens program off the ground, or, more to the point, into it, locally. “I was always interested in creating something welcoming at the east and west gateways to our city,” said Eisenman, a retired secretary. “When I heard the Conservancy was looking to expand its program beyond Pittsburgh, it seemed the perfect opportunity.”

This former Oil City Garden Club president also knows how to grow a team of volunteers to plant and maintain hundreds of colorful annuals around the oil derrick replica at Main Street and Halyday Run Road, and the decorative fountain at East Front and Wilson.

Eisenman’s “green” vision earned her 1998 Citizen of the Year honors from local municipal leaders, and a growing base of fans.

“I met a professional photographer from Colorado one day taking pictures of our garden,” said Eisenman. “He was traveling through on an assignment and said he was mesmerized by the plants. We exchanged addresses and he promised to send me a copy of the magazine he worked for. Lo and behold, one day it came in the mail and there was a close-up of one the feather celosia we had planted.”

Although she turned 78 this year, Eisenman has no intention of slowing down.

“I may give up other things, but not this,” she said. “There’s just so much satisfaction in helping make things beautiful.”

Amy Wilson
Amy Wilson

Amy Wilson
Amy Wilson discovered the joys of volunteering after her mother, Dolores Wilson, volunteered her for WPC’s Community Gardens project in North Point Breeze.

As a landscaper with her own business, Wilson seemed the ideal steward for one of the round plots in the middle of Linden Avenue. “My mother has volunteered all her life and knew this was something I’d enjoy,” said Wilson. In addition, Wilson received encouragement from longtime WPC gardens volunteer Mary Jordan.

That was more than 10 years ago, and though she now drives a freight train for Norfolk Southern and has moved to a new home on Pittsburgh’s Southside, Wilson continues to transform the Linden Avenue garden into a gorgeous annual display with zinnias, coleus, sweet potato vines and other personal favorites.

“It’s so special to me because I love the community and my neighbors appreciate the garden,” said Wilson, 41, whose life partner Jennifer Kenney digs, weeds, and deadheads alongside her. “Because I’m on a train two or three days a week, tending the garden is my relaxation and I get such positive feedback.”

Besides helping urban dwellers feel better about their environment, the garden provides an outlet for at-risk young people. “Gwen’s Girls sends some of their clients to help us plant,” Wilson said, referring to a mentoring program founded by the late Gwen Elliott, a city of Pittsburgh police commander. “It’s a win-win situation for all of us.”

Wilson also helped plant 40 trees through the TreeVitalize program. “She’s one of our most communityminded volunteers,” said Lynn McGuire-Olzak, WPC’s community gardens volunteer coordinator.

Chris Mahon
Chris Mahon

Chris Mahon
Chris Mahon saw more than pretty flowers blooming at WPC’s community gardens Downtown when he moved to Pittsburgh from Hershey three years ago: He saw an opportunity to dig into a new community and make new friends.

“I wanted to get outside and this was a good way to do it,” said Mahon, 28, who works in private wealth management at BNY Mellon and lives on the Southside. “I called the Conservancy, offering to help out, but I was given my own garden at First and Grant, alongside the entrance to the Parkway.”

Although he was just getting to know people at work, he put a request for volunteers in the corporate newsletter and soon 15 coworkers offered to plant alongside him. The second year, another 15 signed up. “One incentive is that our company gives employees two paid days to volunteer, and donates double their pay to the Conservancy,” said Mahon, who treats fellow volunteers to a post-planting pizza party. “It’s a lot of fun and I’m getting to meet people in different divisions and learn about them and their clients.”

This isn’t Mahon’s first volunteer effort, but it’s his favorite, he said. “I like getting my hands dirty and I like seeing a tangible reflection of our labor. What we’ve accomplished is visible.”

The public likes it, too, he said. “On weekends when I’m weeding, people will honk their horns as they pass or they’ll tell me how much they appreciate that we’re making the city look nicer.”

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