Above: Left to right, Paula White, Cyndy Franklin, James Bemberg and Memri Lerch enjoy volunteering at the Atlanta Botanical Garden; photos by Isadora Pennington
For anyone with an interest in history, architecture and research, the Atlanta History Center is a wonderful place to spend time. And for people drawn to nature, flowers and wildlife, the Atlanta Botanical Garden may be the perfect volunteer opportunity.
“I’ve always found value in research,” said Dr. Teresa Styles, docent at the Atlanta History Center. In her professional career, Styles worked for CBS News in New York, and later taught journalism and mass communications at North Carolina A&T State University before retiring in 2014.
As a young woman, Styles worked for Public Broadcast Atlanta in film production. “We were always at the History Center filming all types of great things that happened,” she explained. “I remembered it as a swell place to be.”
Styles earned her BA in English from Spelman College, later her MA in Film from Northwestern University, and also her doctorate in Mass Communications from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her career as an investigative journalist includes many stories, awards, travels and an international resume of published works.
Today, she does volunteer work and teaches as an adjunct professor at Morehouse. It keeps her busy, but she admits that it’s her own doing. Her love for work simply can’t be quelled by retirement.
Upon retiring from academia in North Carolina, Styles found herself missing Atlanta and moved back. “I just wanted to come home,” she said.
Shortly thereafter, she began volunteering in the archives. “A lot of people want to do research on their families and history here,” explained Styles.
At the Atlanta History Center archives, visitors can peruse primary source materials such as papers, magazines, newspapers and microfiches, and Styles is there to help guide them to the proper collections.
Another docent, Linda Bitley, refers to the archives reading room as something like a library.
“People come in and they’re looking for all sorts of information,” she said. A guest might request materials or records or need help navigating through the digital collections.
“I’m there to sort of take care of some of the details in between,” explained Bitley, who has been a volunteer for about four years, and worked as the Collections Manager before retiring.
She handles accessing account information, registering new members, managing the catalogues and compiling documents or information that go with physical pieces of history, making them eligible for exhibitions.
There’s a special joy that Bitley gains from compiling various types of information into one easily accessible file, and learning about the items as she does. “When you’re dealing with historical objects, some of them have stories that goes with them,” she said.
Originally from Buffalo, N.Y., Bitley has been living in the South for around 30 years. As a young woman in high school and college, she helped with collections at libraries, and went on to become an art teacher. When her husband became a professor at Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., Bitley worked on the newsletter and then in the collections at museum on campus.
These days, Bitley is active at the Atlanta History Center, assisting with administrative tasks, research assistance and family programs.
“There are a variety of volunteer opportunities, and I can do more than one, which is really nice. I have the time to do it, and it keeps me involved with people who have similar interests and skills,” she explained.
At the Atlanta Botanical Garden in Midtown Atlanta, there’s a different kind of digging going on. Volunteers perform a variety of maintenance and educational tasks around the 30-acre property, from clean-up to leading tours.
The Garden Essential Maintenance volunteers, affectionately referred to as GEMs, are in charge of weeding, watering, pruning, mulching and more hands-on work, under the supervision of experienced horticulturists.
“It’s a nice way of saying you pull weeds,” said Paula White with a laugh. A career federal employee, White worked as Director of Cooperative and State Programs at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for many years. She managed voluntary, educational and state programs from her office in Washington, D.C. “It was a pretty serious job, but it was wonderful,” she said.
White is a long-time dedicated gardener. Once, when moving, she rented and filled a moving truck with potted plants, peat moss and soil because the movers didn’t want to ship them with the rest of their belongings. When she grew tired of unpacking boxes, she visited a garden center and met someone who suggested she volunteer at the Botanical Garden. That was in 2009, and she’s been a volunteer ever since.
I think we all feel some ownership in this place,” she said. During her tenure at the Garden, White has gotten involved with the Garden Associates, a group that runs events to fundraise for the property, and was nominated as President of Garden Associates in 2016.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to do a huge number of things,” she said, adding that she was about to become a greeter. “I spend most of my life here.”
The atmosphere among the volunteers is one of camaraderie and continual learning. “We’re so appreciated here,” said Cyndy Franklin, a volunteer tour guide at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. “You know, we don’t do this to get praise or earn money or whatever, but they’re always thanking us.”
When Franklin was in a garden club, a friend encouraged her to do both the children’s and adult docent training. It was an instant fit, and she enjoys the company of her fellow volunteers. “Some women buy shoes, we buy plants,” she said with a shrug.
Franklin grew up near Boston in Lincoln, Mass., and attended college at Boston University and later Cornell University. It was when she met her husband, a fellow student who was a native Southerner, that she first considered moving to the South.
“I’m a Yankee but I married a Southerner,” she said. They’d lived in Washington, D.C., before moving to Atlanta, and they’ve now lived here for 42 years.
After retiring from a career of teaching and a role as Director of Franchise Operation for a kitchen supply store, Franklin found the lack of work to be boring. “I love to read, but you can only read so much,” she said.
While leading tours and manning the visitor center at the garden, Franklin has met people from all over the world, and says the experience of being outside among nature has been a joy in itself.
The docents go on monthly field trips, visiting private gardens and other outdoor spaces, which has taught her quite a bit about Atlanta. “Once I start, it’s like everything else just melts away. It has been a great experience.”
Volunteering at the garden has brought Navy veteran James John Bemberg joy, not only through his work with children, but also among the community of docents.
Once a month, the garden hosts a docent luncheon. “It’s amazing how people at that luncheon love each other so much. We hug each other, we tell each other stories since the last time we saw them,” he said.
While in college, Bemberg worked at the botanical garden in St. Louis for two years, and that sparked his interest in this type of work. His parents and grandparents were also gardeners, so his love for plants seems to be hereditary.
For some retirees, volunteering at the Atlanta Botanical Garden feels more like an extension of their careers.
“I think that was one way that I got into gardening, because my job was to nurture people, to take care of people and to try to make them feel better,” said Memri Lerch, a GEM volunteer at the Garden. “That’s kind of what my job is here, except with plants instead of human beings.”
Lerch worked at the Center for the Visually Impaired as a family counselor for the infant and preschool program, working with kids who had severe visual impairment, for more than 20 years. While working there, she received a grant to build a playground for the children.
She suggested a sensory playground, and the organization liked the idea so much that they put her in charge. It was during that project that she met someone from the Botanical Garden, and her interest was piqued by the volunteering program there.
“When I saw what it did for our kids and their parents, I was hooked,” she said. She admitted that her garden at home is often neglected in favor of working at the Botanical Garden, and said that she has found true solace in the work.
“Whatever garden I’m in, it’s my church,” Lerch said. “If I have my hands in the soil or on the plants, that’s where I feel closer to God.”
Learn more about the Atlanta Botanical Garden docent program online at atlantabg.org; click on Support, Volunteer, then Docents. You can also call 404-876-5859 or visit at 1345 Piedmont Ave., Atlanta 30309.
For information on volunteering at the Atlanta History Center, visit atlantahistorycenter.com, click on Support, then Volunteer. You can also call 404-814-4000 or stop in at 130 West Paces Ferry Rd., Atlanta 30305.