Staff Spotlight: Keelin Purcell
Keelin just celebrated her one-year anniversary with the Greenway as our first full-time Volunteer Coordinator. In this very short time, she’s made an incredible impact guiding over 848 volunteers in over 3200 hours of service on the Greenway. When she’s not bustling around the garden beds, she’s exploring her new home in the city, taking in restaurants, operas, and volunteering, of course.
Where does your story with the Greenway begin?
I attended Cornell for plant science, initially wanting to do lab research and a more science-based career. But while I was there, I found lab work a bit isolating and realized I missed working with people. I started working in the education department at the botanic garden on campus, Cornell Plantations, and really loved it. Then I did a few other internships with public gardens focused on school and youth programs; a summer at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and a year at Longwood Gardens. From there I decided to pursue my graduate degree in Public Horticulture Administration at the Longwood Graduate Program. It was an amazing program that focused on team projects, nonprofit management, and professional development trips to conferences and gardens around the country.
After finishing my graduate degree, I spent 2 and a half years at The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY where I was the Manager of School and Farm Programs. When I was ready to get back to a horticulture-based program (and a larger city!), I found the Greenway. There aren’t a lot of public horticulture jobs in Boston, so it was very exciting to see what the Greenway was doing.
What was your initial interest in plant science?
I was always interested in nature growing up, which led to working at a garden center in high school and my interest in studying plants in college. There’s different career tracks when you pursue a program like plant science – genetics, pathology, conservation, etc. Cornell is interesting because they are the land grant institution for New York, so they had a lot of agriculture programs like viticulture (grapes) or pomology (apples), in order to support all the cooperative extensions and research connected to the school. I chose a concentration in horticulture, so my focus was more on growing and displaying plants. I found myself wanting to share my passion for plants with others, which led me to a career in public horticulture and education.
What are you responsible for as Volunteer Coordinator?
As a member of the horticulture department, I am responsible for maintaining their existing and robust volunteer programs. I oversee recruitment and communication with horticulture volunteers and am on-site to manage these events, which is a calendar of over 100 projects a year! I also utilize my background to assist with some of the general horticultural tasks and specifically take care of the Dewey Square Park Demonstration Gardens. It’s a fun mix of office work and being outside!
In addition, I’m charged with guiding our volunteer programs in new directions. I’m currently focused on expanding our volunteer capacity, developing job descriptions and on-boarding procedures, setting up a new volunteer database and tracking system, and forging community partnerships that support our service needs. It reminds me a lot of school programs in that I’m setting up the system to ensure participants have a good experience.
Can you share an experience from one of your most successful Volunteer events?
We tried a lot of different programs last year. Our typical slot for horticulture volunteer events is Wednesday mornings from 9-noon, which is not convenient for everyone. So we added an after work, “brush hour” event. For the August brush hour, we partnered with ONEin3, so we were working with a bunch of young professionals that are excited about Boston. They were such an awesome group to work with and invested in getting the job done. After the volunteer shift, everyone migrated to Central Wharf for drink specials and free appetizers we had arranged. It was a great experience and I’m excited to offer more opportunities like this in the future.
What have you noticed from working with the volunteers?
I have the opportunity to talk to so many volunteers and community members in my position. I hear a lot of optimism in these conversations regarding the space, and especially the organic program. What’s neat about working out on the Greenway is that people are constantly walking by and often thank the volunteers for their work or ask a question about what they’re doing. We like to pick projects that are visually impactful – raking out leaves at the end of the winter season, cleaning and weeding an entire parcel, or planting thousands of bulbs that then bloom in the spring – people gain a lot of perspective understanding what it takes to maintain an organic program. A single one of our park parcels can seem small visually, but when you consider that it takes 15 people three hours to just take care of that one space, you can come to a greater realization of what we’re accomplishing along the whole Greenway. We always say that the volunteer program is part of our organic program; we simply couldn’t operate without them.
How has volunteering impacted your personal life?
I was raised with volunteering in mind. Both my parents work for non profits and in college I had a scholarship that included a lot of volunteer work. So I’ve learned that volunteering is an incredibly healthy activity to incorporate into your life. It helps you step outside your comfort zone and your expertise to give back to a cause that means something to you. And volunteering can allow you to learn something and meet people in the process. I often volunteer with Boston Cares, which was started by a group of young professionals that were looking for opportunities but didn’t necessarily have the time to devote to ongoing projects. They have a flexible calendar system where you can try a bunch of different things so last year when I was new to Boston I made a goal to try something new in a different area of the city each month. Through those experiences I’ve also learned a lot from watching how other volunteer events are run, so it has been an enlightening experience all around.
What’s coming up in the future that you’re excited about?
In the next year we’re putting even more focus on individual opportunities to get involved, both in and out of the horticulture program. For example, to support the upcoming Janet Echelman sculpture, we’re developing a Arts Ambassador program, looking for volunteers to help provide visitors with information and activities to highlight the installation. We are also developing a Creative Media Arts Volunteer Team to meet a variety of potential interests, all to help showcase what takes place on the Greenway. It should be a great year!
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