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Spotlight: Matthaei nurtures growing interests
for volunteer coordinator

Tara Griffith stops her tour of the Conservatory at Matthaei Botanical Gardens to chat with several volunteers who are processing native plant seeds. She then continues her walk through the back halls of the greenhouses.
Tara Griffith, shown with Wolfgang, helped develop a special gardening program for seniors. (Photo courtesy Tara Griffith)

Griffith's life and her job as volunteer coordinator for Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum are embodied in the crisscrossing of her social work background and love for the outdoors.

Born and raised in Plymouth, Griffith remembers having an affinity for nature as a child. "I was always a little tree hugger," she says, "I chose to be outside more than inside. My parents may have fostered that, but it also seemed natural for me."

In 1998 she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in social work from Eastern Michigan University. Upon graduation, Griffith helped a small non-profit agency, Neighborhood Senior Services, in her first stint as a volunteer coordinator. "Our staff and volunteers provided practical support and advocacy to help seniors remain living safely at home," she says.

She also began volunteering in 1999 at Project Grow Community Gardens in Ann Arbor, an organization that invites the public to rent garden plots for growing organic foods.

In fall 2001 Griffith entered the School of Social Work as a Hartford Fellow specializing in geriatric social work. As a graduate student, he interned at the Turner Senior Resource Center, and became involved with the Silver Club Adult Day Program for older adults with memory loss.

Her constant exposure to the elderly and the environment inspired Griffith to work with Project Grow to develop a special gardening program for seniors in 1999. The Wise Roots program provides older adults with 6-by-4-foot raised garden beds and volunteer assistance.

"Gardening and being outside is so good for people in so many ways, physically, mentally and spiritually," Griffith says. "Older adults who might have loved experiencing nature might now feel that they can't because of limited mobility or sensory impairments. I wanted to prove to them they could do it and make gardening accessible to everyone."

The first year of Wise Roots started with six elevated plots, created by "dumpster diving for wood scraps to raise the plots," Griffith says. "We hand built all of the raised beds, and had to build more and more each year."

Most of the Wise Roots participants were recruited through Neighborhood Senior Services, but during her graduate studies Griffith also coordinated garden visits for members of the Silver Club.

In August 2007 Griffith joined the staff at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum. As volunteer coordinator, she matches people to jobs that suit their interests and abilities. "People of all ages and backgrounds volunteer with us because they are personally enriched by contact with the natural world. MBGNA provides them with an opportunity for service, learning and hopefully inspiration to live a more sustainable lifestyle."

Volunteers are essential to the mission and smooth operations of Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum, contributing more than 12,000 hours of service last year, Griffith says.

"I'm fortunate in that I get to glean some of the excitement from our talented volunteers," she says. "I'm energized by interacting with these people."

The weekly Spotlight features staff members at the University. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at

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