Volunteers are drawn to museums in whose subject matter or mission they are interested. For docents this is especially true, since they not only learn while they volunteer, they share their passion for the subject with visitors. The Desert Botanical Garden, which features desert plants from around the world, draws many types of volunteers who all share a common goal: preserving the desert through educating the public, participating in research, and protecting endangered species.
Our location in the Sonoran Desert creates a slow season during the summer months when the temperature ranges from 105 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Docents are given this time off and many leave the area completely. The trick is to get them to come back! Continuing education is the key. By participating in new learning opportunities about their passion (the desert) volunteers are constantly rewarded, and each season brings new inspiration.
Continuing education not only offers the volunteers a chance to learn more, it fosters social interaction. Many volunteers thrive on the opportunity to socialize while not working. Leadership opportunities can also arise from continuing education programs. Volunteers can take the responsibility for coordinating these programs, and they can be very successful in recruiting outside speakers. This also provides the opportunities to work closely with one or more stall members. The encouragement that comes from socializing and bonding with peers and staff helps prevent volunteer burnout.
Throughout the year the Garden offers a range of new learning opportunities. Mondays have been set aside as continuing education and meeting days. Volunteers are encouraged to participate in a minimum of three continuing education opportunities each year. The following represent the variety of learning experiences available.
Walks With an Expert
Once a month a specialist from the Garden staff or the community will explore the Garden while talking about a specific topic. Volunteers sign up ahead of time and the group size is limited to thirty. Topics discussed in the past include: the geology of the Phoenix area, wildflower identification, plants used for dyes, and our cactus collection.
Docent Luncheon Lectures
The docents hold a pot luck luncheon and host a speaker once every three months. The docent chairperson arranges these with the help of their staff liaison. These lectures are open to any interested volunteer and usually attract between forty and sixty people. Previous topics have included: herbal medicine, bats of Arizona, and story-telling techniques.
General Volunteer Meeting
The second Monday of every month is reserved for a general volunteer meeting. An educational and entertaining presentation follows a social hour and business meeting. The keynote speaker — a Garden scientist, local university professor, or community representative — speaks about a desert-related topic. These talks range from scientific discussions about paleobotany, anthropology, and ecology to Native American folklore and the history of garden ornamentation.
Throughout the summer, Wednesday mornings bring a variety of informal learning sessions. These sessions are geared toward reinforcing Garden interpretive concepts. This summer’s sessions will explore: reptiles of Arizona, how to weave mats and coil baskets, desert bees, birds and their nests, and more.
Periodic trips to other botanical gardens or culturally related museums are also well received. They provide a wealth of knowledge as well as alternative interpreting and tour leading techniques. ‘Behind the Scene’ trips are always well attended by our docents and school guides.
Finding people to lead these workshops, tours, and lectures is not as difficult as it may seem. The staff at your institution is a good place to start. The Garden also takes advantage of local university professors and graduate students, Game and Fish Department personnel, garden association members, and staff from other museums and zoos, as well as members of Native American Councils. Most of these local groups are looking for ways to share their expertise and will do so on a voluntary basis. They are good collaborative resources.
Continuing education sessions almost always light a spark in the participants and has contributed to a wonderful working relationship between paid staff and volunteers.
Ruth Copeman has been with the Desert Botanical Garden since 1995. As the Outdoor Education Coordinator, she coordinates programming for elementary through college students and assists in interpretive volunteer training.
Copeman, Ruth. “Continuing Eduction is the Key,” The Docent Educator 7.4 (Summer 1998): 8-9.