Every year, visitors flock to the Garden during cold winter months to see the splendor of the annual Orchid Show, which fills Orthwein Floral Display Hall with the tropical, exotic flowers. But before the crowds stream in, volunteers spend weeks turning the Hall into an orchid paradise.
The dedication of the volunteers is impressive, and includes some, like Bonnie David and Jack David, who spend six hours a day at the Garden for several weeks before the show.
They’re continuing their commitment this year despite a major challenge added to their lives – Bonnie David was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the end of November. She’s started treatment, with two rounds of chemotherapy under her belt, but that hasn’t slowed her down from working at the Garden.
“I’m not going to sit at home and die,” Bonnie David, 74, says. “I’m going to fight a good fight.”
She said spending her mornings at the Garden has “absolutely” helped her get through this difficult time.
“It helps you to get your mind off of it. It keeps you busy,” she adds.
Bonnie usually works on painting, sewing and ironing. Her husband Jack, 73, does carpentry work.
The Davids first got involved with the Garden five years ago when they helped with the annual desert exhibit. The couple asked about more volunteer opportunities, and they’ve been setting up for shows at the Garden ever since.
“We really enjoy doing it. We have fun working down here and we enjoy the people,” Jack David says.
Retirement brings in a number of volunteers, including Bill Snyder, 67, who retired from the Garden in 2016.
Snyder actually first started as a volunteer at the Garden after retiring from the human resources department at A.G. Edwards. He ended up becoming a full time outdoor horticulturalist for seven years until he decide to return to volunteering, which he says offers more flexibility.
“I like the schedule better as a volunteer – I get to pick what I want to do,” he says.
Snyder says he works 20 to 25 hours a week during busier times, like the Orchid show, and five to 10 hours a week in slower times.
“I like the people, it’s a beautiful place to come to and I like the work itself,” he adds.
For Laurian McGrath, a master gardener and year-round volunteer, the appreciation of visitors is the best part of the gig.
“You go out there and work and people say, ‘thank you for being here,’” she explains.
A St. Louis native, McGrath had always been a frequent visitor of the Garden herself, describing it as a “jewel in the city,” where she takes out-of-town guests. When she retired and looked into volunteer opportunities, it became clear the Garden was the perfect fit.
“It’s the best thing I ever did for myself,” she says. “I like being helpful and knowing I’m doing something helpful for some place that has always given me so much pleasure.”
Cliff Vollmer, 66, expressed similar sentiments about volunteering at the Garden.
“It’s nice to be part of something much bigger than yourself. It’s a St. Louis landmark,” he says.
Vollmer, who has been volunteering for four years ago, spends every Thursday at the Garden working alongside Paul Feldker, 77, a 15-year volunteer. For shows, the two do a lot of woodwork, from basic framing to more challenging projects, like an intricate easel Feldker built for the Orchid Show.
When there aren’t shows to prepare, they help wherever they can in the Garden.
In addition to enjoying the work and the company, the pair agree Pat Scace, the exhibit designer who oversees the volunteers, is a big reason they keep coming back.
“Pat is a gem to volunteers,” Vollmer says. “She deeply appreciates everything you do.”
Appreciation for Scace is common among the volunteers, as are plans to continue volunteering with the Garden for as long as possible.
“Until they tell us we’re too old or the doctor says I can’t,” Feldker jokes.
Public Information Specialist