The Rapidian

Volunteers vital part of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park

Volunteers at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park gain as much as they give.
Volunteers Clarice Newhof and Judy Lukas

Volunteers Clarice Newhof and Judy Lukas /Courtesy of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park

/The moss garden takes a delicate touch / Courtesy of Shuji Valdene Mintzmyer

If you’ve explored the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden and encountered a woman lying on the ground while deploying a pair of tweezers, you’ve met Shuji Valdene Mintzmyer. The tweezers are for weeding. “You may see me move two feet in my four-hour shift,” she said.

The Japanese garden is the latest addition to Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. Mintzmyer, who moved to Grand Rapids in June of 2015, toured Meijer Gardens and fell in love. A month later, she was volunteering. 

A Buddhist priest, she had no temple or sanctuary at the time. “I look at taking care of the Japanese garden as my Zen practice. There’s a meditative quality to it.” 

She also volunteers as a docent, and in that role interacts more with guests than plants. One interaction she particularly treasures was with a Kalamazoo couple that had been coming for over twenty years. They stood with her and reminisced (“Remember that flower that bloomed only every so often? Oh, and that sculpture!”) They were talking more to each other than to her, really; she felt privileged to be there.

Mintzmyer is an exemplary volunteer, but she is hardly the only one. Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park has about 800 active volunteers. During the last fiscal year, they provided over 87,800 hours of service. At any given time during opening hours, there are an average of 28 volunteers on site.

Tom Hoving, Volunteer Manager, said of the volunteers that it would be “hard to imagine what Meijer Gardens would be like without them.” A former volunteer himself, he was hired into his position in 2003 and has enjoyed the big hearts and wealth of experience brought by the volunteer staff. Hoving described the volunteer experience as “win-win.” He said, “Our volunteers love being here and we love having them here.”

Volunteer Kathy O’Bee agreed. Having taught in Grand Rapids Public Schools for thirty-seven years, she found herself looking for somewhere to devote her time in retirement. The Lena Meijer Children’s Garden offered her the opportunity to give back while interacting with children, which she had missed. 

Her passion for the area came through in both her tone and words as she talked through the layout and features of the garden. She described the sensory garden (devoted to stimulating the five senses), the treehouse, farmhouse and more. A smile was evident even through the phone as she described the tea parties she had with children, and the joy they took in serving her.

“I love children,” she said. “They’re easy to talk to - just get down at their eye level.” She also pointed out that, while “children” may be in its name, parents and grandparents love it as much as the kids.

David VandenBerg has volunteered for fifteen years. “That tells you something right there,” he said. A member of the board of directors for six years, VandenBerg has volunteered in many ways, from driving tram to leading tour groups to assisting with weddings and other special events. 

He is as passionate about Meijer Gardens as anyone I spoke to, which made it more than surprising that, prior to volunteering there, he had never visited the venue. A retired schoolteacher who was once named Michigan’s Science Teacher Of The Year, he was approached by Meijer Gardens and decided to give it a shot. He now describes the place with the zeal of the converted. “One of the missions is to be world-class,” he said. “If we’re going to do anything, it’s going to be world-class, first-rate, top-notch, or we’re not going to do it.” He has made lifelong friends through his volunteering, and has met people from all over the world.

His enthusiasm drove his wife, Ellen VandenBerg, to volunteer there as well. “We’re excited to show people what Grand Rapids and Frederik Meijer Gardens have to offer,” she said. She told me that volunteers decide how often they want to volunteer, and that there are positions for every skill and interest. 

One particular joy for her is helping with weddings (“Everything from finding colorful umbrellas if it’s raining to passing out water bottles if it’s hot”). She loves being a part of special moments in the lives of others, and has been gratified to be approached outside of the gardens and thanked for what she did.

Both she and her husband felt more than appreciated by the staff of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. “No one takes you for granted. We feel like we should say thank you to them for letting us be part of such a great spot in Grand Rapids.”

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