Project 1: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX Feb. 2012


The Wildflower Center

I hate cold-calling. Is anyone really any good at it? I called the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in January to tell them about this crazy idea that I had called 35 Projects. This is my first real pitch, I thought. How this goes might even be indicative of how the overall project will go. This is where the rubber meets the road.

Well, I pretty much crashed and burned on my first pitch. I didn’t get a no, but I certainly didn’t get a yes. I don’t blame the communications department for being slightly skeptical. My website wasn’t up yet and my Facebook page only had one like… my own. I probably sounded like a crazy woman. In the end, I emailed a volunteer coordinator and asked if I could volunteer for just one day. I was going to be in Texas visiting family, and could I stop by Friday morning? I received an immediate yes and quickly learned that the LBJ Wildflower Center is a well-oiled machine when it comes to volunteers – they have dozens of them. This got my attention after working for so many nonprofits that have a difficult time keeping productive volunteers engaged. In 2011, the $4.4 million dollar organization had volunteers that gave over 34,000 hours of service.


Big ideas and other things that you want to forget at 5am

On Friday morning, I remembered another thing about volunteering; namely, that it can require getting up early, which sucks when you are dealing with jet lag and slept on a love seat all night that is two feet shorter than you are. Add this to the fact that I would rather sleep in and take a margarita lunch on a patio somewhere in the Texas sun and you have an all-out bad attitude brewing. Had I not already told so many people about the idea, I might have been tempted to go back to sleep, conjure up some of my famous procrastination, and wait until next year. 36 Projects has kind of a nice ring after all, doesn’t it?

Instead, I got on the road heading up to the Wildflower Center and even cajoled my mother into join me. She was in an even fouler mood than I was. When a Sonic breakfast burrito and strong coffee couldn’t even turn things around, I was excited to see that at least I come by my occasional bad attitude honestly. When my mother gets like this about one of my crazy ideas I start doubting myself, immediately. No matter how doubtful I felt about an entire year of 5 a.m. weekends on top of my demanding work schedule, it was too late to quit. After all, I had a website for cripes sake; no turning back now. We drove through the grey, drizzling morning and arrived at the center. Once again, Texas had experienced a record drought in the moths prior to my visit. By some accounts, seventy percent of Texas received only one-half of their annual rainfall during the previous summer. This made the work of the Wildflower Center even more important as they scrambled to continue promoting sustainable lawns and landscapes while protecting native species. The center even produces its own drought-resistant lawn seed, eliminating the need to decide between scorched lawns and high water bills.

Wildflower Center Volunteer Name Badges

Getting your hands dirty

I was sent a map and detailed instructions on where to park and enter the Wildflower Center prior to my arrival, a further testament to their level of organization. As soon as I walked in the door of the volunteer meeting room, it was clear that volunteers are valued. Later on, it would also become clear that they work hard, but for now I gazed in jealousy at a bulletin board with hundreds of volunteer name badges clipped onto a wire grid. Finding, training, and retaining dedicated volunteers is a constant battle for nonprofits. How to reward someone when their work is valuable but you can’t show that with money is the question nonprofits struggle to answer.

I was introduced to other workers and we were quickly whisked away to the greenhouse for an introduction to the day’s project. We would be sowing seeds into small containers. The seedlings would be transplanted when they started to grow, and eventually, be planted around the center or sold for profit during a garden fundraiser. With ticket sales down in the blazing heat as much as 30 percent, I was told by volunteers that the plants that we were growing were a vital source of income. Great, no pressure though, right?

The work was fun and the team I was on, Team Trouble, made it all the more interesting. The seeds were small, had to be counted, and were often light as air, appearing almost like dried-up wisps. Trying not to mess anything the hell up would be a constant theme for the morning. Each seed type had its own mysterious requirements as to how many seeds were to be planted in each little pod and how much dirt to cover the seeds with. Our morning projects moved along at a fast pace. This was partially due to the inclement weather. There was a group of male volunteers in the middle of a large door/frame replacement project that was put on hold in the rain. People tend to enjoy doors on buildings not being removed in the middle of a rainstorm, for whatever reason. These gentlemen were assisting us instead. I learned that each doorframe that they could replace saved the Wildflower Centers thousands of dollars. At the time they were on their fifth or sixth door. This was a great reminder that nonprofit organizations need a variety of skill-sets.


An idea solidifies

Tags Identify Planted Seeds

As I planted trays of future seedlings, I could see my idea for a year spent volunteering whenever and wherever I could, even destination volunteering, take shape that day. My mom and I had flown into Austin just a few hours earlier knowing only three people in the entire town. While we worked and chatted the morning away, we made new friends, got a real feel for the city as the locals see it, and picked up some great restaurant and entertainment recommendations.

In the coming days, my mom and I talked about our volunteer experience with as much or even more excitement than the other stops we made in the city that we had never visited before. I left the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the city of Austin hopeful that both the seeds I had planted that weekend and 35 Projects would take root and thrive, growing to their full potential.



For more information about the fabulous Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the important role that they play visit: