For this month’s volunteer spotlight, we turn our attention to a volunteer who came in without a clear sense of what he wanted to do in his volunteership, but has since taken root (pun intended) in the Old Town Recovery Center Living Room and created an activity that has become a fixture of the Living Room community. Hayden Buell, Living Room Team Lead, had this to say about Rob’s contributions to the Living Room:
Robert has been one of our most outstanding volunteers here in the Living Room. When he came in to volunteer he took the initiative to create a program of container gardening for our members which has grown to be one of the most asked about activities. He has gone beyond in his support of our program, often coming in to support us on days we need an extra hand or helping us get out into the community with our outings. He connects with members on a personal level and is an important part of creating our team here.
Read on to see how Rob turns Living Room thumbs green, how the activity has impacted members of the Living Room, and how it has become deeply meaningful for him.
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Peter: What is your name and volunteer role?
Rob: My name is Robert Stewart and I run an indoor gardening group activity every Friday at the Living Room.
P: How did you find out about CCC and what drew you to volunteer here?
R: I’ve lived in Portland for 15 or 16 years and I had a vague idea of what Central City Concern did and I think I just cold called or cold emailed the previous volunteer coordinator, Eric. I just decided one winter that I needed to devote more of my time to serving others in the community. I hadn’t intended to do the planting stuff at all, I just wanted to be plugged in to anywhere that I could be helpful and Eric suggested checking out the Living Room. I kind of just got the lay of the land there for a couple months and developed a strong hunch that the planting activity would be something that would resonate with people.
P: So you didn’t come in with the planting idea?
R: No, no, for the first couple months I just got to know some people, did a lot of dishes, and cleaned a lot of tables, just kind of served lunch and whatnot. I wasn’t even aware at the outset that we could tailor activities, but the more time I spent there, I realized that this is something that could fit within the framework.
"I didn’t really know what to expect when I went in to it, but whatever expectations I had were exceeded many times over. It’s really been one of the best experiences of the past 10 years for me."
-Rob Stewart, CCC Volunteer
P: I understand it’s been a very popular thing since it started.
R: It’s exceeded my expectations. I began it thinking I would be lucky to get one or two people who would do it with me so I didn’t feel silly planting by myself, and that’s how it was for the first month or so: just one or two interested folks, but then I think other folks saw people were enjoying it and could see some of the fruits of their labors, because a lot of the plants we keep at the Living Room, and decided they wanted in on it. The only thing really limiting the size has been my budget, because I provide the materials, so I can use usually three to five people in a given session. And there are days when I have more that are interested, so you have to do a first-come, first-served kind of thing where people take turns.
P: I must admit, being the opposite of a green-thumb, I don’t know what indoor or container gardening is and by extension of that is how you shape your classes around that.
R: Container gardening is, I guess, a fancy word for house plants. And I want the activity to be accessible to people of all different skill levels, so I recognize that some people might think they might not have a green thumb. What I try to do is, with a decent chunk of my plants, offer the most hard to kill, fastest growing things that I can find. Some plants that can tolerate low light conditions or have a little bit more of an envelope as far as what’s going to make them thrive.
And I get the whole range of folks from people who are pretty comfortable with plants—maybe they’ve already had house plants at home or at least have taken care of them—to people who profess that they kill every plant that they try to take care of. Some of them I think I’ve converted into semi-green thumbs. I think it’s intimidating at first because they had an experience where they killed a couple plants once upon a time, but if I can give them something that’s easier to take care of, that builds confidence. I’m also there and they can ask me questions and coach them through if they’re not sure about a particular aspect of care, fertilizing or watering as a plant needs.
P: That must be really rewarding to see that growth within people through the class.
R: Yeah, I think one of the coolest things to me about it is that the main mission [of the Living Room] is to give the people an activity and a sense of belonging. I feel like it fulfills that need for an activity, but it is also a long-term project where they can nurture this plant and, provided you do so within certain parameters, you see it grow and sometimes literally blossom, and other times just get large, beautiful and green when it started as a little tiny starter. So, there’s an aspect of progression and growth that I think people enjoy. I definitely enjoy it.
P: There’s stability there, too.
"[F]olks will give the plants away as gifts and I think that can be pretty rewarding, especially when you’re at a place where you’re receiving services. It’s nice to have something that you can give back to somebody."
R: I think most people have this innate need to care for something and an easy-to-take-care-of house plant is, for a living thing, the lowest risk-to-reward option. If you don’t care for it correctly, it will die and you just plant another one, it’s not like having a dog or something like that. You have this entity that you take care of and kind of stays the same and progresses as well.
P: And there’s the aspect to it as well that folks may not have a lot that is stable in their lives, so just having something to come back to I’m sure is very meaningful as well.
R: And that was one of my initial goals was to make sure there would be no real requirements to participate. So, the way we have it is we’ll do the planting in the Living Room and for folks who might still be on the streets or in temporary housing, they can keep their plant at the Living Room and enjoy it, but other folks are more than welcome, if they have a home that they can take them to, to keep their plant at home. So, I think for the former group, it does kind of increase a sense of ownership or belonging to the Living Room. Other folks will give the plants away as gifts and I think that can be pretty rewarding, especially when you’re at a place where you’re receiving services. It’s nice to have something that you can give back to somebody.
P: Something I underestimate in my living space is the things that are extra, and how those contribute to happiness. It could be that a lot of folks that are taking plants home from your course have never been able to afford, whether through time or money, to do those extra things in their living spaces.
R: Yeah, that’s what I hear and some folks who, for example, have just gotten housing, they can take this plant home and that sort of symbolizes that they are making it their place. Something that brings a little life to a new house or apartment.
P: Have there been any stand out moments in your volunteership?
R: Just every once in a while, someone will take me aside and they’ll just volunteer how meaningful it was to them or how much they enjoy having their plant at their new apartment that they recently got. You can read from people that it’s something that they enjoy doing, but for someone to pull you aside and give a quick heart-to-heart, it’s extremely rewarding. I’ve honestly never really had that kind of experience before.
It’s a really wonderful team at the Living Room—each person brings their own unique approach to the whole community. Even in the two years that I’ve been here, I’ve seen the Living Room progress into an even-more community-focused environment. It’s a really special place; there’s a lot of teamwork and trust. I think it’s a beautiful program and there need to be more like it.
P: What keeps you coming back, or what keeps you volunteering in your role?
R: The staff and the other members. I feel really fortunate. I love spending time with them. As my group activity has evolved, I do see more potential for it, so there’s a little bit of personal curiosity to what other directions I can take that approach, but predominantly it’s the people.
P: And our traditional last question: what would you say to someone who is curious about volunteering with Central City Concern but was on the fence?
R: I would say, “Don’t hesitate.” Go talk to Peter. I didn’t really know what to expect when I went in to it, but whatever expectations I had were exceeded many times over. It’s really been one of the best experiences of the past ten years for me.