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The Latest Dirt - July 2023

An Interview with Kate Verhoef

by David George and Simone Adair

Talented Contra Costa UC Master Gardener Kate Verhoef is leaving our program this summer. She plans to travel to Europe, teach part–time, and visit her family in Canada. As much as we hate to see Kate go, we celebrate her many contributions to our program during her tenure. Simone and I met with Kate to gain her perspective on her volunteer years and what our program can achieve going forward.

What did you do prior to applying to be a UC Master Gardener, Kate?

Kate in the garden. Photo by Graciella Rossi
Kate in the garden. Photo by Graciella Rossi
I was raised in southwestern Ontario and picked up my BA and Master of Arts degrees in Applied Linguistics at York University in Toronto. I worked as an ESL teacher and curriculum developer before moving to the Bay Area in 2005 when my husband was hired as a professor at UC Berkeley. I became an urban farmer and raised our daughter in the East Bay. I volunteered as a writing coach and ran the garden at my daughter’s elementary school.

When were you certified as a Master Gardener, and for which roles did you volunteer?

I was certified along with a great group of classmates in the Class of 2018. It was a fun group to train with. I want to give a special shout–out to my classmate Alice Burns who shares my love of working with kids and inspired me to get involved in School Gardens. I’ve been the co–lead of that project for the last two years.

I also jumped into the Growing Gardeners classes as a lecturer in Richmond, Walnut Creek, and Antioch. This was before it was switched to the online format.

One of my especially rewarding experiences was volunteering with veterans at the VA in Martinez. I owe much gratitude to my generous and compassionate fellow volunteers, Darlene DeRose and Denece Dodson. And I can’t forget to acknowledge the wonderful and devoted Bob Archer! It was sad that we had to curtail the VA activities because of the pandemic, but Denece is now trying to revive our efforts.

Kate with a third–grade teacher at Mira Vista Elementary School. Photo by Graciella Rossi.
Kate with a third–grade teacher at Mira Vista Elementary School. Photo by Graciella Rossi.
Oh, and I have written several articles for The Latest Dirt and News to Grow By. Working on those editorial teams, especially with Simone Adair and Hedwig Van Den Broeck, was a pleasure.

What have you enjoyed most about the Contra Costa UC Master Gardener program?

Oh, for sure, the camaraderie of my fellow UC Master Gardeners and their generosity of spirit. But I’ve also enjoyed working closely with staff and parents at the School Gardens and interacting with the veterans at the VA Hospital. Sometimes it’s sad and a bit overwhelming, but the vets are hilarious and great to be around. One even attained his permaculture certificate!

The community schools focus these days on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), but I became involved in workshops at the Richmond Children’s Library called “STEAM,” which includes Art as well. We developed fun, interactive activities focusing on STEAM for their after–school program. Simone was a great assist there, and Liz Rottger also helped immensely. One of my favorite integrated activities was assisting kids in building native bee homes.

What do you think are the main challenges of our program in the future?

Kate playing 20 questions with kids about animals that live in our ecosystem. Photo by Graciella Rossi.
Kate playing 20 questions with kids about animals that live in our ecosystem. Photo by Graciella Rossi.
It’s been tough to recruit enough CoCoMG volunteers to staff and assist with all of our community–focused projects. The pandemic and its school closures put a dent in our programs and the ability to volunteer, and it has been challenging to reboot our programs again. We need so many to step up and volunteer now. For example, School Gardens lead Pam Austin is looking for two liaisons to help her with Central County and East County schools to focus more on West County, where she lives, and on the program lead administrative tasks. She can’t always drive from Richmond to Brentwood and back! (Kate laughs) But much shorter–term, even one–off, jobs are begging for volunteers right now.

Do you have any advice for our newer volunteers?

Just jump in and get started. Don’t be shy or afraid. You’ll be amazed at how fun it is. We have so many experienced mentors that can assist during the learning stages. And then you can add your creativity to the role. Everyone in the program can make a difference. I once read and firmly believe that altruism is good for you!

What are your near–future plans, Kate?

We’re going to be empty–nesters next month. Our daughter, Tess, is taking a gap year in Europe with the WWOOF program (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms.) She’ll travel and work in Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Greece. It’s a fabulous opportunity for her to see the world before entering college in Toronto. My husband and I have bought a property about three hours northwest of Toronto on Lake Huron and plan to build a semi–retirement home there. I’ll also be traveling to the UK this fall on a 200–mile solo walk in Dorset called “The Hardy Way.” Then we’ll be visiting Spain and maybe Morocco this winter. And I’ll still teach part–time for one more year — I’m the outdoor educator at an elementary school in Richmond.

Wow, that all sounds nice! What have you found out about our program during your tenure?

Our program is full of strong personalities, and Simone and I fit right in! (Kate laughs again.) I’ve also found that the role of co–lead is not as frightening as it sounds. You have access to past leads for guidance, you have your co–lead to depend on, and the project volunteers do a lot of the heavy lifting. As long as there are well–defined divisions of labor, the project team can act like a well–oiled machine. The old expression is true, ‘Many hands make light work.’

From the School Gardens project, I’ve learned that teaching kids to grow their food is key to the future of humanity. Pam Austin has been a pleasure to work with. I found a niche in the Contra Costa Master Gardener program, and so can everyone else. What will I miss most, though? The camaraderie and the people. They touched me.

Thanks, Kate, for your service to the program and your perspectives on how to get involved and have fun! You have enviable plans, and we wish you the best of times ahead.