2012-01-11 / News

MSUE steps out of Master Gardener volunteer program

BY NANCY R. ELLIOTT 810-452-2601 • nelliott@mihomepaper.com

LAPEER COUNTY — Lapeer County Master Gardeners are adjusting to the news that after decades of partnering, Michigan State University Extension is changing the ground rules, effectively severing themselves from management of the Master Gardener volunteer program.

MSUE will continue to provide the education portion of the program and provide a certificate of completion for classes, but certification for the Master Gardener program through community service hours will have to come through a partner entity like a local Master Gardener association. Those local associations as of Jan. 1, of which there are 33 around the state, are no longer affiliated with MSUE and cannot use MSUE’s name in their Master Gardener volunteer capacity.

“There are some changes,” confirmed Joe Bixler, MSUE’s District 10 Director, overseeing Lapeer, Huron, Sanilac, St. Clair and Tuscola counties. “We are in the midst of rolling out those changes.”

MSUE’s Master Gardener Volunteer program began in 1978. Volunteers became certified Master Gardeners through classes coupled with MSUEtracked volunteer time in horticulture projects. Currently, Master Gardener certification requires 40 hours of community volunteer work, with 15 hours of volunteer work, and five hours of education each year to keep that certification.

The changes being implemented now mean that local volunteer groups must shoulder the burden of tracking the volunteer hours necessary to achieve certification, and provide their own liability insurance.

Lapeer’s local group has about 120 volunteers who racked up more than 10,000 hours last year in community service projects. Their efforts are visible around the county including such sites as Otter Lake gardens, the historic courthouse, and the display garden at the Lapeer County Medical Care Facility.

Lapeer County Master Gardeners treasurer and volunteer Mary Paine was dismayed by the news of the changes.

“MSU Extension has decided that they can’t afford to maintain us. They’re not supporting us at all,” said

Paine. “Kicked to the curb,” is how she described the move.

Paine acknowledged that the group could track their own hours, but asks of MSUE, “It’s not that we can’t, but why are you doing this?”

The bottom line, as usual, is money.

“We no longer have the staff to manage the volunteer component of the program,” said Bixler.

Dr. Steve Lovejoy, MSUE Associate Director for Programs, said, “We just don’t have the resources to provide the kinds of supervision we have in the past.” He noted, “Our role is as educators.”

“The state cut our budget 15 percent. We had to lay off personnel. We have fewer consumer educators,” said Lovejoy. In Lapeer County, MSUE has also suffered budget cuts from the county, impacting funding towards the local Master Gardener program coordinator position held by Kim Willis.

“Volunteers are important to us,” said Lovejoy. He said that MSUE may still offer a service to track volunteer hours, but it will come with a fee per person. The fee has yet to be determined as they learn more about potential participation, but he anticipated it would be no more than $25. Lovejoy also confirmed that MSUE does not seek to have control over volunteer projects, noting of local community groups, “They will be the ones to decide.”

MSUE will not offer Master Gardener classes this winter, but will introduce a new curricula in the next 12-week session set for late 2012.

Bixler is ready to work with the local group to transition to the new relationship.

“I am committed to making sure it works,” said Bixler.

Paine said that Bixler has been very helpful as they broach the new territory, but still laments, “It’s the principle.... It doesn’t make any sense unless I can’t see the flowers for the trees.”

A webinar with volunteers around the state is set for today to bring them up to speed on all the changes.

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