A Garden Variety Volunteer

Greg iten and Samara Kinkki. Coco Zickos photo

Retired architect Greg Iten finds satisfaction volunteering at the National Tropical Botanical Garden

Spending time outside surrounded by beautiful native plants is all in a day’s work for National Tropical Botanical Garden volunteer Greg Iten.

“It’s really kind of an honor to work here, and a privilege,” he says of the three NTBG locations – McBryde, Allerton and Limahuli – where he devotes much of his free time.

The Kalaheo resident spends anywhere from four to 10 hours a week helping NTBG employees weed and plant native species. He even had a hand in painting the visitors center at Allerton garden in preparation for a recent visit by the NTBG Board of Trustees.

Iten began a little less than a year ago assisting researchers in the herbarium, where tropical plants from around the world are dried, pressed and mounted for the nonprofit’s extensive archives.

Now, the retired architect works in the plant library about once a month and conducts outdoor activities three or four days a month.

“Whatever the gardeners need done, I’m willing to help them out,” says Iten. “And they are so gracious. They just are so appreciative of the help that we give them. You want to come back and continue working.”

Iten’s contribution is a perfect example of the range of volunteer work available to anyone who wishes to help at NTBG.

“They don’t have a chance to get bored,” says NTBG volunteer program coordinator Samara Kinkki. “There are just so many things to do, and Greg has taken to just trying everything out.”

Until recently, Kinkki also was a volunteer for NTBG, working with Hawaiian Charter School students for a project called Kukua ‘Aina Youth Initiative – a work readiness program that helps prepare youths for the future by teaching them native plant-growing skills.

“We couldn’t run the place without volunteers,” says Kinkki, a Kekaha resident.

There are 150 to 200 active volunteers and only 80 employees at NTBG.

“The staff really appreciates the help, and the volunteers end up feeling like staff members, and they really feel part of the garden,” says Kinkki.

Volunteer Iten says he believes that he is working with the employees rather than for them.

“There’s a big difference,” he says. “They are just so appreciative – it’s just professionalism, but yet a warmth and really nice welcoming attitude. And they’re so helpful.”

Staff will drop everything for volunteers, agrees Kinkki.

“It really makes my life so much easier,” she says. “They’re so nice to the volunteers. It’s great; no matter how busy they are, if a volunteer has a question, they are there to help.”

There also is a kinship among volunteers.

“Most everyone becomes friends. For a lot of people, it’s their core social group. It’s a good way to stay connected,” says Kinkki.

And if it weren’t for all the dedicated volunteers like Iten, severely endangered native plants might not get the help they need to survive.

Some species located in the gardens no longer exist in the wild.

“We’re the only ones doing it, so if we don’t, these plants will be lost,” says Kinkki of the NTBG mission to conserve, educate and protect endangered tropical plants.

Witnessing native plants in their natural environment being pushed away by invasive species has really hit home for Iten.

“They’re just choked out,” he says.

Another important benefit NTBG provides through the motivation of volunteers is giving residents and visitors a chance to “realize the connection with the living world,” says Kinkki.

“I’ve seen it happen where people have lived in an urban environment all their lives and they’ve never had this experience of being in a garden and what that is, beyond being in the woods somewhere being bitten by mosquitoes.”

Being part of an organization that is helping to make such an ecological difference makes Iten feel like he’s getting much more out of the experience than he actually puts in.

“It’s really rewarding to see the staff members so happy to have the help. And to see that people in the community want to donate their time is reassuring when you hear this bad news all the time. There are so many people willing to work for free,” says Kinkki.

Volunteers logged some 2,500 hours in the month of February alone.

Even though Iten volunteers for other organizations, the Seattle native likes the friendliness and outdoor activities that NTBG provides the best.

Visit www.ntbg.org for more information. coco@midweekkauai.com