Feb 23rd, 2015

Volunteer Manager Darlene Van Laan Retires

darlene nancy penick

Plant sale chairs and volunteers Nancy Penick (left) with Helen Blencowe (center) and Darlene Van Laan.

by Jonah Holland,  Public Relations & Marketing Coordinator, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Earlier this month longtime staff member  Darlene Van Laan retired.  Van Laan has been Volunteer Manager at the Garden for 11 years,  and over that time has ushered in hundreds of new volunteers at the Garden and made them feel the love of this place in a way that only she knew how.  I’ve always seen Van Laan as a mamma duck, looking over her flock of volunteers. She has a gift with people, and during her time here we’ve had a backlog of volunteers. That is, so many volunteers that we couldn’t process them all in as timely a fashion as we would like. Never did I think I a non-profit organization would ever exist where they might turn a volunteer away, or tell someone, “We would love to have you volunteer with us, but it might be a few weeks before we can find a spot for you.”  Van Laan has a magical way with people,  a way of letting you know with a look, or a touch that you are valued, and you are loved.

So you can see why her retirement was a bittersweet occasion. She of course didn’t want us to make a fuss over her leaving, and actually, I had a bit of trouble finding out when her last day was, because she wanted it all to be low-key. But we want to honor her and her commitment to the volunteers  and to the Garden over all these years.  We asked a few longtime volunteers to say a few words about her and what she’s meant to the Garden Volunteers.

“Darlene has a way of making each volunteer feel special and important to the garden. Darlene really makes each volunteer feel that their time given to the garden is important and appreciated. ” ~Nancy Penick,  head of the volunteer plant sale committee.

“She truly cares about all volunteers and if they were ill or going through challenges, she was right there. She would visit you in hospital and you would end up with some food, not just her famous brownies. Of course, Darlene is one special person and will be missed by many, not just the volunteers.  She enjoyed the plant sales and it was a joy to see her working away on labels and culture information while wearing a special plant sale hat.” ~Julie Abbott, Garden Volunteer for 29 years.

As for me, I remember they day I met Darlene (over 7 years ago) like it was yesterday. She was assisting volunteers who were serving rose-flavored ice-cream during our October Rose Fest. I’d been on staff a mere 3 weeks, and was thrilled that not only did she know who I was but was ecstatic to see me.  Many volunteers consider Van Laan  like family, and I am one of them.

Van Laan’s quiet retirement meant she sent this message to staff and volunteers after her departure. It’s beautiful and we’ll like to share it with you:

“Small words for large feelings” ….. The Garden is special for me because of you, my friends.  I am overwhelmed as I think of the variety of experiences shared and friendships we have made.  It is not possible to capture or to meaningfully celebrate the last 11 years – especially to say goodbye to them. The words are so small – thank you for your support and kindnesses to me and for your dedicated service to the Garden. You have made this experience the best part of my journey!  So goodbye to this Volunteer Manager position only – I will see you in the Garden!


Volunteers looking at gift book

Volunteers looking at the “Plant sale book” made by Nancy Penick in Darlene’s honor.

nancy penick and darlene

Can you feel the love?

Jonah Holland is Digital Content Manager at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where she has worked for 14 years overseeing social media, the blog, and the website. She is also a mom, yogi, open water swimmer, gardener, and seeker. She's been known to go for a walk in the Garden and come back with hundreds of plant photos, completely inspired to write her next blog post.

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