When neighborhood resident Byron Clark answered an ad to help plant chrysanthemums at the Dallas Arboretum in 1984, little did he know he’d continue on as a volunteer there for more than 21 years.
Since it opened in th mid-’80s, the Dallas Arboretum has relied on volunteers such as Clark to keep things running smoothly. From tram drivers to tour guides to gardeners, volunteers of all shapes and sizes can be found hard at work throughout the lush surroundings of the gardens on any given day.
Currently, the Arboretum has more than 500 active volunteers. During Dallas Blooms, the institution’s largest event held every spring, that number increases to about 1,700 (which includes corporate and high school groups in addition to the regulars).
One of the reasons the Arboretum volunteer program has been so successful throughout the years is the diversity of jobs it offers.
According to Cris Emrich, director of volunteer services at the Arboretum, their philosophy goes a little like this: “No matter what your desire is, come and we will train you in any of the areas.”
We talked to three neighborhood folks to see what their experience as a volunteer at the Arboretum has been like.
While Clark, 82, has manned several different positions at the Arboretum since he started planting chrysanthemums, he has spent the last 17 years helping out in the accounting department. It’s a job, he says, that came about by default.
It started when someone asked if he minded answering the phone. “I said I didn’t,” he says, explaining that he “acted as a receptionist.”
Then, once the DeGolyer House was acquired, he was moved over there to answer the phone. Soon, someone in the accounting department asked him to take a look at some vendor numbers.
“I didn’t have anything else to do, so I said I’d be glad to.”
Then it progressed as an “as long as you’re doing that, can you do this too?” kind of thing, and Clark found himself strictly working with the accounting department.
“The first desk I had in my little office was in the bathroom,” he says laughing. “I was there for a long time, too!”
But Clark didn’t mind. He had retired from an insurance company just before he started volunteering at the Arboretum, so working with numbers was something he liked to do – and still does.
“I enjoy it so much,” he says. “It gives me something to get up for in the morning and go to. And the people in the accounting department are super. It gives me responsibility, but with some backup.”
Clark usually works two days a week, and his wife, Yvonne, started volunteering five years ago in the gift shop.
Pat Hill, 75, has been volunteering at the Arboretum since the beginning. For the past 23 years, she has served as a DeGolyer House docent.
“I get a pleasure out of doing this because I get a chance to show other people what we have in Dallas,” she says, likening the DeGolyer House to a jewel box – a 21,000-square-foot jewel box, for that matter.
In addition to giving guided tours to visitors, Hill helps out with any repairs the home may need, such as with furniture or lamps or even touch-up painting.
“We try to make it look as nice as we can – trying to keep it in the style of what it looked like when [the DeGolyers] lived here,” she says.
Hill is quick to launch into the history of the home, which was originally built on a 44-acre dairy farm. The DeGolyer family (instrumental in establishing the Arboretum) hired an architect from California, and it took one year to build the house between 1939 and 1940.
Hill also volunteers as a reading tutor at Robert E. Lee Elementary, delivers Meals on Wheels, and is an elder at Northridge Presbyterian Church.
But, she says, the Arboretum is a unique find.
“It’s one of the nicest places in Dallas to visit and particularly to bring your out-of-town company. The Tulip Festival is bar none. It’s a beautiful place, and I’m very pleased with the progress they’ve made over the years,”
David Gary and his wife, Linda, have been members of the Arboretum for years. But it was only two years ago when Gary began volunteering as a tram driver. Since then, he has logged more than 1,500 hours of service, serving as tram captain during Dallas Blooms.
“I wish I could’ve been doing this sooner,” Gary says.
One of the reasons Gary sought out a position driving trams at the Arboretum is because he has muscular dystrophy, which makes it hard for him to get around.
“The tram I can do. I can’t go biking or hiking. But this opened a lot of doors for me. Instead of staying home, I get out and do something. Anybody can do something out there,” he says.
In fact, at the age of 28, when he was first diagnosed, Gary’s doctors told him he would be in a wheelchair by the time he was in his 30s.
“Now I’m in my 50s, and I still get around. They told me what I couldn’t do, and I was gonna prove them wrong,” he says.
Although he uses a cane to help him walk, Gary has no problem operating the tram. And he says he feels good about being able to help other mobility-impaired visitors around the gardens.
One of the things Gary likes most about his job at the Arboretum is meeting new people.
“When you’re doing the tram, you’re one of the first people [the visitors] meet. You have to be friendly and have a good sense of humor. You meet people from all over the world.”