Ruth Smith joined UNH Extension in September as the Master Gardener volunteer coordinator. In her new role, Smith will recruit, train and support New Hampshire Master Gardeners. While she’s new to Extension, she’s no stranger to educational work, gardening and volunteerism. We recently caught up with Smith to talk about her plans for supporting Master Gardeners, the power of volunteering and why it’s always good to have a change of clothes handy when you’re near a pond.
Can you describe your role at Extension?
I am the Master Gardener coordinator, so I will be working to recruit, train and support Master Gardeners throughout the state. One thing I really want to do is reach out to inactive Master Gardener volunteers and understand why they moved on. Are they at a different stage of their life? Was something not working out for them? I want to understand those things and then try to re-engage them. I want to say to them, "I'm new here and I am going to try some new things, and hopefully they might bring you back."
I’m figuring all of this out and helping people understand our mission and how they can contribute to it. The garden is the most intimate way of connecting to the earth. Learning how to garden well is learning to be a good steward of the earth. I am a big fan of community engagement. Volunteerism is literally in my blood. My father was a museum director. He was the director of several museums, and at one point we lived in Herman Melville's house. My mother was always his right hand as the volunteer coordinator wherever he worked. I would come home from school and there would be volunteers around for the society and I would jump in and help out. I grew up seeing the impact volunteers could have and the community that is built when people are working with other like-minded people. [CL1] I have heard feedback that Master Gardeners would like more opportunities to get together as a group when the training is done. That social aspect is really important to volunteers.
"I grew up seeing the impact volunteers could have and the community that is built when people are working with other like-minded people."
What excites you about working with the Master Gardener Program?
Everything! To help that volunteer engagement piece is really important to me. Finding the right match of projects and activities that is the right match for volunteers. When you make that connection? Magic happens. People feel excited about what they are doing and giving back to their community. Working with communities motivates me. There are so many opportunities for Master Gardeners.
What do you see as some of the challenges in your work?
Getting on board with all of the new things is a challenge, but I am excited about it. It will take time, but people are generally patient. For me, it is both a challenge and an opportunity working for a larger organization. Extension has a lot of staff and a lot of resources, so navigating the scale will be challenging.
The Master Gardener program has a strong foundation, but like everything else, there is room to bring my own style and approach. I have a lot of respect for this program, and I have heard so many great things about it. I want to look at what is working along with what needs improvement. I want to tap into our available resources, the key one being our volunteers. Volunteers come to learn, but they have so much to share and I don't want to forget that.
What would you tell someone who is thinking about volunteering with Extension as a Master Gardener?
There are wonderful opportunities to meet like-minded people, learn a lot and give back to your community. It is an easy sell.
Before working at Extension, what was the most unusual or interesting job you’ve ever had?
I spent 24 years working for New Hampshire Audubon and did a lot of different things for them. When I first started, I was a school program presenter and would take wild animals into schools. I would have barred owls and bald eagles on my arm and that was pretty cool. They would poop and the kids would scream.
I was once out at a site in Nashua doing pond studies, and I had told the class to bring a change of clothes in case they fell in. I ended up falling in...and did not have a change of clothes. We all learned a good lesson that day.
When your friends/family find out that you work at Extension, what do they say or ask? Mine usually pull out photos of strange insects.
Some of my friends who are in the know say, "You are so lucky to work for Extension!" Then there are other people who say, "What is that?" So then I get to explain our relationship to the university and the work that we do. Another common question is, "Will you be on WMUR?" I don't own a television, so I did not know about Grow it Green, but it is apparently very popular.