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Volunteers help keep Overland Park Arboretum running

Special to The Star

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How to volunteer

Volunteers must be 18 or older. To becomes a volunteer, call 913-685- 3604 or send email to volunteercoordinator@opkansas.org to reserve a spot at the Sept. 27 orientation.

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The Overland Park Arboretum boasts a botanical garden, hiking trails and a whole lot of volunteer help to keep it all running.

Last year, about 350 people from the community worked more than 34,000 hours to keep the place looking and functioning at its best.

Volunteer coordinator Cathy Lovetere said the volunteer manpower the arboretum receives is the equivalent of 16 full-time staffers or $400,000.

“The volunteers are absolutely vital and necessary … without the volunteers, the arboretum simply doesn’t exist,” she said.

Although pulling out weeds is an important part of the volunteer work, that only scrapes the surface of the many ways people can participate.

“Working in the garden, you plant bulbs in the winter, and next spring you can hardly wait for them to come up,” said Overland Park resident Sally Williams.

Williams has been volunteering at the 300-acre arboretum for a year and a half. She’s a part of many different committees and spends her time in a variety of roles there. One of her favorite things to do as a volunteer is to help kids learn compass skills.

The GeoKids program takes kids on a geocaching treasure hunt the old fashioned way — with no GPS.

“You say, ‘OK, we’re heading to the pond. What direction do you think it is?’ and they all point different directions,” Williams said.

She also helps with the Hot Summer Days program, which provides activities for kids that can help them cool down on some of the more sweltering days of the season. Water balloons feature in part of the program.

Williams said she’s fallen in love with the arboretum and tries to spread that love to everyone she knows.

When she tells acquaintances to try a visit, “people say, ‘It’s $3 admission,’ so I reach in my pocket and hand them $3 — that’s your first visit on me. And they say, ‘I don’t want to take your $3.’ Then what are you complaining about?” Williams said.

Overall, it’s the attitude of the other volunteers and staff that has really attracted Williams to the arboretum.

“You meet so many happy retirees and volunteers of all ages. People are just really happy. I’ve never seen anybody cranky out there,” she said.

For volunteer Bob Lane, the best job at the arboretum is being the Tuesday morning greeter. Because Tuesdays are free at the arboretum, he sees more of a variety of a people than he might on other days.

He also answers the phone and gets all kinds of interesting questions.

“People call with the strangest comments or questions. I had a lady once ask me if it was going to rain in the afternoon,” said Lane, an Overland Park resident.

When a controversial partially-nude statue made headlines for the arboretum in 2011, Lane took many calls related to the artwork.

“That was a fun time to work,” Lane said. “You got all sorts of different reactions. Ninety-nine percent of the people were incensed that anyone would think something was wrong with (the statue being there.)”

Lane also heads the education committee and helped put together an instructional booklet on trees for children that the Kansas Department of Education has asked permission to use state-wide.

What volunteers decides to do at the arboretum determines what training they’ll have. Gardeners can jump right in and work along a staffer. For greeters and tour guides, it can vary.

“It depends on the person and their personality,” said Lovetere. “Some people can jump right in after a few hours training. Others like to shadow tour guides a few times.”

Volunteers must commit to 40 hours a year, and after they reach that benchmark, they get free admission any day of the year.

Although the waived entry fee is a bonus, it’s not the crux of why people join the team at the arboretum, said Lovetere.

“I see them forming friendships, and it’s a great opportunity to be with other people who have their interests … They are making a huge and important contribution to not only the city of Overland Park but to our worldwide visitors,” she said.

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