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The Latest Dirt - May 2023

The Good ‘Ole Days of CoCoMG! An Interview with Emma Connery

by David George

2023-05-TLD-Emma Connery
Emma Connery has seen it all. A lot of change and growth has occurred since she joined the UC Master Gardener program in Contra Costa in 1994. I was honored by the opportunity to interview Emma on Earth Day and listen as she compared today’s broad-reaching, community-based program with what it was like in the early years.

What did you do before the Master Gardener program, Emma?

“After high school, I went right to work at Pacific Bell, as it was known at the time. The only positions open to women without a college degree were for operators – you know those folks who helped with directory assistance and long-distance calls. I rose through the ranks over 27 years to the position of phone network designer and then as data compiler for the director in charge of rate increases. I retired from the phone company in 1992 and enrolled in college and earned degrees in horticulture (’94), entomology (’98), and integrated pest management (’03).”

Emma Connery teaches class on Entomology at New Volunteer Training. Photo by UC Master Gardeners.
Emma Connery teaches class on Entomology at New Volunteer Training. Photo by UC Master Gardeners.
When were you certified as a UC Master Gardener and what role did you play in those early years?

“I was certified in 1994 and have the second most longevity of all active volunteers still in our program (after Prabhakar Sathe). The program was very small when I joined, maybe less than 50 volunteers. There was just a Help Desk and no other community outreach, so that is where I started. All our funding at that time came from UC and went towards the salary of the Program Coordinator, with no money left for program supplies or equipment. The Help Desk was located in the back room of an elementary school in Pleasant Hill. We had one desk and one phone. The only resource materials were a few newspaper articles and a handful of non-UC books.

That must have been frustrating. How did the Help Desk improve over those first years?

“I discovered that UC published information in the form of paper pamphlets, on many home garden issues, but they were housed in another part of the building. Because I always think in terms of process, I compiled an index of those publications and placed a paper copy of each in a file in our office to make UC information readily available for volunteers to research and respond to. But the office was very small, and the only restroom was the elementary school’s bathroom with 3rd-grader toilets 12 inches off the ground! (Emma laughs). About 1999, the CoCoMG program, including the Help Desk, moved across the street to behind the Pleasant Hill Library and had access to a real restroom thank goodness. Our Help Desk office was much bigger at the new location, so we grew to three desks, each with a phone. But there were still no provided computers, so volunteers made equipment donations. There was no internet access available to us yet, so we used them primarily for word processing.”

How did our program evolve into what it is now?

Bethallyn Black introduces Emma Connery to the 2009 New Volunteer Training in Richmond before she teaches entomology. Photo by UC Master Gardeners.
Bethallyn Black introduces Emma Connery to the 2009 New Volunteer Training in Richmond before she teaches entomology. Photo by UC Master Gardeners.
“Well, by 2000 we had broadened our programs to include a few school gardens and farmers markets. Our program funding was severely cut back because of the Great Recession in 2009, and that same year the program coordinator, Bethallyn Black left and I was appointed as her replacement. Honestly, we were uncertain if the Contra Costa program would survive. Soon after, we developed our fundraising plan. Liz Rottger stepped forward with a plant sale idea and a ‘We can DO this!’ attitude that eventually turned into our first Great Tomato Plant Sale at the old Contra Costa Times garden in 2012. We provided 3000 plants expecting to last three days and were sold out in three hours.

“I’m gobsmacked at how our program has grown since 2010! The funding from our plant sales combined with our volunteers’ vision and enthusiasm have driven our program expansion exponentially in many directions. Through our help desk, the farmer’s markets, the speaker’s bureau and library talks, growing gardeners in English and Spanish, the demonstration gardens, our website and newsletters, a much larger piece of the community has come to know us and trust the information we provide.”

What have been the most rewarding aspects of your UC Master Gardener years, Emma?

“My most rewarding experiences have been meeting and working with so many wonderful people. The years I taught entomology at the new volunteer training classes and my six years as Program Coordinator, before Dawn took the helm in 2016, gave me the opportunity to know every volunteer in our program. I also taught entomology in a number of counties other than ours, and so met program coordinators and volunteers far beyond our boundaries – I loved all those times.”

Do you have any final comments or advice for newer MGs?

“Simply, find an activity that you enjoy. Be open to and make new friends. If you are on a team, it is all the better because teamwork builds strong bonds between its members. Little can compare to ‘shared joy.’”

Thank you for your leadership and volunteerism for so long, Emma, and for adding to our understanding of what the Contra Costa program was like in its early years. We are much in your debt.