Marya McNeish sits inside SEEDS’ main lobby, decorating signs for the upcoming Garden Hat Party, just one of the many events hosted by the organization. It’s a rainy Wednesday morning, which has forced McNeish indoors, away from her normal outdoor volunteering duties.
McNeish is one of the many volunteers who help out during the work week at SEEDS, a nonprofit community garden located on Gilbert Street in downtown Durham.
McNeish has been volunteering at South Eastern Efforts Developing Sustainable Spaces, Inc. (SEEDS) on a weekly basis for the past few months. She says that her children have gone off to college, leaving her with more free time throughout the workweek.
“I try to get here every week for a three-hour shift,” she says. “It is a commitment of mine to be here every week. It’s a nice way to break up the middle of the week.”
According to Hilary Nichols, the garden manager at SEEDS, the number of volunteers on any given weekday can range from one or two, all the way up to 50.
“A lot of the groups that come during the week are people from computer companies,” Nichols says. “It’s just really interesting that it’s young, computer programmers. They are hard workers. They enjoy getting out from behind the computer for a day.”
Volunteers do a variety of jobs throughout the week and no two days are the same. But regardless of what a volunteer may be tasked with, whether it be planting pollinator plants to attract honeybees, or making posters, one thing remains the same: SEEDS’ vision.
According to Nichols, weekday volunteers aren’t just planting seeds, weeding gardens or organizing weekend events. They’re improving the local community, which after all, is the mission of SEEDS and the reason it was founded way back in 1994.
“Our biggest mission is to educate people,” Nichols says. “So we have various workshops, and programs and volunteer experiences to teach people about growing food. I really hope that the community is coming in and taking advantage of learning that.”
But SEEDS does more than just teach northeast central Durham residents. When it comes to gardening, many of the weekday volunteers learn something new each time they drop in and help. McNeish says that she has learned a number of things while helping at SEEDS that she wants to implement into her own garden at home.
“I’ve learned some stuff about plants that are native, that are good to attract honeybees,” she says. “I’m interested in adding that to my own garden to help increase the honeybee population.”
But beyond its educational aspect, SEEDS’ weekday volunteer program also helps build friendships. For volunteer Stephen Druesedow, who, like McNeish, tries to stop by and volunteer at least once a week, this is the most rewarding part.
“My favorite thing to do is probably get to know people as I’m working with them,” Druesedow says. “It’s a lot about community, so I like to get to know about the plants. I’m into herbal plants. But getting to know people as I’m working with them too is a lot of fun.”
The weekday volunteer program is held each Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Potential volunteers can sign up online for one or both daily shifts. The morning shift runs from 9 a.m. to noon, while the afternoon shift is from 1-4 p.m. But veteran, more experienced volunteers are quick to suggest that new SEEDS volunteers sign up for one shift at a time. According to Druesedow, some days the work can be quite strenuous.
“It’s usually a lot of moving,” Druesedow says, describing his typical work. “So it’s like physical activity, like moving dirt from one area to another.”
On Friday, Druesedow was busy climbing up and down a ladder, hanging up flags to decorate the SEEDS campus.
But potential volunteers need not to be afraid. Nichols says there is always something that needs to be done at SEEDS. If someone is willing to help out, but isn’t too keen on digging around in the dirt or climbing a ladder, something can be found for them to do indoors.
“The volunteers don’t just work with me,” Nichols says. “Volunteers also work in our offices doing paperwork type things and computer work. They also work with the DIG youth. So all of our different programs use volunteers.”
The DIG program, or Durham Inner-city Gardeners, teaches teens how to manage a garden and make healthy meals.
SEEDS staff members will be the first to admit that volunteers are the backbone of the entire organization. And it’s the weekday volunteers who help to ensure that SEEDS can continue to aid and educate the local Durham community.As for McNeish and Druesedow, they have no plans to stop volunteering anytime soon. As McNeish puts it, she’d rather weed flowerbeds at SEEDS than the ones at her home.
“It’s kind of like cleaning the kitchen,” she says. “It’s always more fun to clean someone else’s kitchen than your own. So I don’t mind weeding here.”
And the SEEDS staff will continue to welcome her with open arms.