Master Gardeners win second place award at international conference
RAYMOND, Miss. -- Six years ago, John Malanchak combined his love of science, passion for teaching and a call to serve others into a project he named Dominic’s Garden.
The project, which serves people with disabilities in the Jackson metro area, was recognized in June with an award at the International Master Gardener Conference in Overland Park, Kansas.
Malanchak, on behalf of his fellow master gardeners in Madison, Hinds and Forrest/Lamar Counties, accepted the David Gibby International Search for Excellence Award in the Demonstration Gardens category. The project was entered into competition under the title “Dominic’s Garden -- Gardening with Special Needs Groups.”
“I am humbled about the whole thing,” said Malanchak, who estimated he spent at least 80 hours on the award application. “We submitted a good application, but I wasn’t expecting to win. I just can’t get over the fact that we won the award.”
Jeff Wilson, state coordinator for the Mississippi State University Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Program, said the recognition is well-deserved.
“This award is very special because it highlights the awesome volunteer work being done in Mississippi,” Wilson said. “It also rewards a great deal of hard work and compassion by these volunteers.”
What started out in 2017 as one garden at St. Dominic’s Hospital daycare for 25 3- and 4-year-olds has grown. Malanchak has been joined by other area master gardeners, and they now work with multiple organizations in Hinds, Rankin and Madison Counties serving children and adults with disabilities. The Pine Belt Master Gardeners in Forrest and Lamar Counties have contributed to the project by providing salad table raised beds for some facilities.
The group visits students and residents at five separate facilities during the growing season. Participants get hands-on lessons in planting seeds and growing a variety of vegetables in raised beds and containers. Volunteers also teach the residents the science of growing plants with presentations on topics like plant parts and plant biology.
“I love to teach,” Malanchak said. “And I want to convey my love for gardening to our participants and have them get joy from it, too. As a teacher, if I can present the information in a way that gets them interested, their desire to garden increases and then their ability to garden increases.”
While participants may be learning to grow plants, Malanchak said he knows they are getting something greater from the program.
“For young people, it’s the exploration and the ah-ha moments -- the instant they understand something. For senior adults, it can bring back memories of when they gardened in the past. They all get a sense of self-accomplishment,” he said.
Malinda Randall, a neonatal intensive care nurse, has been volunteering with Malanchak for more than four years at facilities in the Jackson metro area.
“Working with people who have disabilities is something that has a special place in my heart,” Randall said. “I was looking for a way to give back to the community. I felt a need to give of myself and bring joy to other people. One day I saw a story in one of the local newspapers on social media about John and the Dominic’s Garden project. And I said, ‘I’ve got to call that guy.’”
Randall recently earned her Master Gardener certification.
“I give all the credit to John,” Randall said of the award. “He has guided all of us in this project. It is an amazing accomplishment.”
Maureen Scott, a member of the Metro Master Gardeners in Hinds County and retired certified public accountant, said her work with Dominic’s Garden is exceptionally rewarding. She volunteers at The Mustard Seed, Madison Home Place and St. Catherine’s Village.
“I do a lot of work at Campbell Cove, the memory care unit at St. Catherine’s,” Scott said. “I used cuttings of different plants that I have growing in my yard to give them a complete sensory experience to try and bring back some memories for them.
“I had one lady say, ‘I used to grow daylilies.’ And I had another lady say, ‘I had a big garden with lots of tomatoes that I used to can.’ So, it brings me a lot of joy that they enjoyed it. I actually think I get more reward from it than the residents,” Scott said.
Delivered through the Extension Service, the Master Gardener Volunteer Program trains individuals on consumer horticulture and related areas. Once certified, volunteers help provide horticulture information to their communities based on university research and information. They also help with various community horticulture projects.
It’s a program that enriches not only the lives of the volunteers who are trained, but also the communities where volunteers give of their time, talents and knowledge.
“The program is incredibly important in the lives of our master gardeners and for the people they help,” Wilson said. “It brings them joy when they get to work on projects that they know will benefit others. Whether it is in a vegetable garden or flower garden, they know their work makes others’ lives better.”
Scott, who has been an avid gardener all her life earned her certification in 2021, said becoming a master gardener has expanded her gardening knowledge.
“I’ve learned a lot working with John and all the other master gardeners,” she said. “You get to learn from each other. It’s a great experience all around.”
The 2023 Master Gardener training will be held Oct. 3 through Dec. 4. The course is offered online and is self-paced. Registration opens Aug. 14 and closes Sept. 11. To register or for more information, visit the Extension website at www.msuext.ms/mg or call your local Extension office.