Real Estate

Cultivating friendships

Ninety years later, the Garden Club of Palo Alto keeps giving back to the community

It was in October of 1921 when a mutual love for gardening and community service inspired Mrs. Frederick Wheeler, along with 11 other women, to volunteer their time and establish the Garden Club of Palo Alto. The goal of the Garden Club was quite unequivocal -- to actively provide leadership and educate the community about gardening by serving local organizations.

With the dedication emanating from the club's eight executive board chairs and 250 volunteers, the goal of the original 12 women is as clear today as it was nine decades ago.

"I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the quality of life within the community," Lonnie Zarem said as she arranged a bouquet of decorative dahlias under the large oak tree at Gamble Garden in Palo Alto.

Since becoming a member in 2005, Zarem volunteers her time as co-chair of the Community Outreach Committee, one of 22 Garden Club committees serving the community on behalf of the Garden Club.

The Community Outreach Committee meets between the months of July and September (peak gardening season) at Gamble Garden. There, roughly five to eight women pick flowers, courtesy of the Gamble Garden, and arrange them to later be distributed among 90 various organizations and community centers including local schools, hospitals and firehouses.

"Volunteering for the Garden Club of Palo Alto is more of a relaxed volunteerism; it is up to each volunteer on the amount of time they wish to input," Zarem said.

Becoming a member takes time, patience and dedication.

"Anyone interested in volunteering needs a recommendation by a current member who can later represent them as a sponsor to shadow for five committee meetings throughout the year," Nancy Wong, president of the Garden Club of Palo Alto, said.

After attending five committee meetings, an application is filled with an attached report on any horticultural subject of her -- or his -- choice. Although women are the dominant majority of volunteers, men are welcome to apply for memberships.

Once accepted as a member, the person can join whichever committee appeals.

"It depends on what you do and what you want to do with your time," Zarem said. "All volunteer hours are appreciated."

Once finished with raising her children, Janelle Foder, a Garden Club member for six years, finally had the time to become a member and volunteer for the Charitable Trust and Project Funding Committee.

"Anne Ackerman was my sponsor while applying for my membership and what really intrigued me about the Garden Club was the ability to help people on a basic level -- a reason why I specifically volunteer for the Charitable Trust and Project Funding Committee," Foder said.

A fraction of the money raised by the Garden Club is put into a "charitable trust" that is later given as a grant to a qualified community group, according to Betsy Okarma, a volunteer for the project-funding committee.

"As part of the selection process, two volunteers from the Garden Club become sponsors for the community groups that write proposals explaining how they would benefit from the grant," she said.

For example, the La Mesa Project in San Jose allows low-income families to learn the basics of growing and maintaining backyard vegetable gardens. With the grant from the Charitable Trust and Project Funding Committee, lumber, soil, plants, seeds and tools were all donated to the families, according to Foder.

Volunteers from the committee continue to advise these families as their backyard vegetable gardens continue to grow.

Okarma was drawn to both that committee and the Community Outreach Committee when she started volunteering. "I'm a doer and not so much into social functions. I like to see projects happen and educate on the subject of gardening. I'm learning a lot myself since this is all very new to me."

Like Foder, Okarma became interested in becoming a member after raising her children. She was convinced to join by her past mentor from Stanford Nursing School, Phoebe Bush, who later became one of Okarma's sponsors along with Shirley Finfrock.

"I'm very willing to sponsor someone. We need younger people (young blood) to carry on the success of the Garden Club, so I'm constantly telling people about it," Okarma said.

Through its dedicated volunteerism, the Garden Club of Palo Alto has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars throughout the past 90 years for community organizations.

To celebrate its success and mark its 90th anniversary on Oct. 28, 2011, a Celebration Committee is planning a member-only cocktail party/fundraiser.

"As we celebrate 90 years of the Garden Club's wonderful history, I look forward to continue our efforts in introducing the community on becoming more environmentally responsible and sensitive," Wong said.

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