Neighborhood resident Julie Mendelson knows a thing or two about what it takes to keep kids out of trouble. After all, she spent 30 years as a school counselor, mostly at the junior high and high school levels.
The field, she says, changed tremendously over the course of her career.
“I was really very heavily involved with way more personal crisis issues with kids [near the end],” she says. “I was dealing with social service issues, kids from dysfunctional families who were starting to fall through the cracks. I had to provide a lot of help with coping mechanisms.”
It was so stressful that, after she retired in 2001, she “knew she wanted to do something very different.”
“For 30 years I was cooped up — for lack of a better word — in a school building all day, looking out window and wishing I was outdoors,” she says. “When you step foot in the Arboretum, every stress, every worry, every care you may have just tends to evaporate.”
Mendelson started off in a general role: “Welcoming people to the gardens, pointing out various things of interest … sort of like a goodwill ambassador if you will,” she says.
But it seems she just couldn’t stop herself from becoming involved in the lives of teenagers. After a year at the Arboretum, she knew she had more to offer than interesting facts and a friendly smile.
“I saw where there was this huge draw of high school kids to volunteer during major events,” she says. “I looked at the system they had for recruiting high school kids and realized nobody really had experience working in the schools. I saw ways they could do this better, more efficiently, and draw more kids.”
So she has gone from your basic Arboretum greeter to chairman of recruitment and retention on the volunteer advisory board. And so far, she has had much success.
“We had a fabulous teenage turnout for Spring Blooms, the largest ever,” she says. “If you can imagine such a thing, we had 886 teenagers from 41 high schools. They donated 4,430 hours.”
Still, despite her accomplishments, Mendelson doesn’t kid herself about why most of the kids are there.
“Ninety nine percent of them are there to fulfill service requirements” for school programs, she says.
“But the hope is that they will enjoy it enough so that when they become an adult, that experience will transcend into an adult volunteer spirit. Not only do you feel good about yourself because you’ve given your time and energy and talents, but I think it’s very, very important for people to give back to their community, whether it be at the Arboretum, the art museum, shelters or tutoring.”
But probably more important to parents, she says, is that the Arboretum “provides a clean, safe, family-oriented environment” for kids.
“When you talk about 15-year-olds, that is something that means a lot to parents.”