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Master Gardener coordinator wins award for pandemic work

Woman poses in garden

URBANA, Ill. – In spring of 2020, right as the soil was warming up and Champaign County Master Gardeners were getting ready to kick off the planting season, the COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to their plans.

Tabitha Elder, Illinois Extension Champaign County horticulture program coordinator, was one of 16 civil service employees recognized for exceptional performance by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with the Chancellor's Distinguished Staff Award.

Without being able to meet in person, they couldn’t get plants in the ground, and with a surge of interest in gardening from those stuck at home, volunteers were trying to figure out how to safely fulfill the Master Gardener mission of “helping others learn to grow.”

That’s where Tabitha Elder stepped in to ease the 250 volunteers into new technology, online training, and remote community educational opportunities.

Elder coordinates the Champaign County Master Gardener program as part of the University of Illinois Extension horticulture team in Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion counties. She was one of 16 University of Illinois civil service employees recently recognized for their exceptional performance with the Chancellor’s Distinguished Staff Award.

Elder was nominated by a team of three master gardeners – Pamela Hohn, Christie Roszkowski, and Susie Smith – with support from County Extension Director Ginger Boas and Horticulture Educator Ryan Pankau.

“Last year, we had to quickly pivot to offer gardening programs safely during the pandemic. Tabitha met the challenge and learned how to use new technology and remotely connect with our large volunteer base so they felt comfortable sharing knowledge virtually.”
- Ginger Boas

Elder started working with Illinois Extension the fall of 2017. She ensures that volunteers in the program, one of the largest in the state, have the resources they need to contribute more than 11,000 hours to community gardening projects and public outreach annually.

“Everything that we do in Illinois Extension as far as making an impact and extending education, a big portion of that is done through the volunteers,” Elder says.

Her team of nominators pointed out that listening is one of Tabitha’s strongest skills.

“Whether in a meeting or just chatting with a volunteer, she carefully listens to what is said and asks important questions,” wrote one Master Gardener. “Thus, she is able to understand issues and to make connections between people.”

Since they couldn’t meet in person for planning meetings or, at times, even work in their gardens, Elder applied new technologies to keep volunteers engaged. She helped them get comfortable in the new online world by making “How to Guides”, providing resources in a cloud storage system, and coordinating virtual work and social meetings to stay connected.

“As the first adopter of technology, she is the go-to person for any of the hundreds of volunteers who seek solutions to problems in using it,” another nominator said.

It takes 130 Master Gardeners to manage the 18,000 square foot demonstration Idea Garden, on the Champaign-Urbana campus of University of Illinois.

“We did lose some plants and some sections of the Idea Garden last year, but the pandemic also created opportunities,” Elder says.

Some rose plants died, so that team of volunteers took a new approach and renovated that section with a focus on sustainable rose gardening that uses less labor and chemicals. Since Master Gardeners couldn’t answer questions in the field, they put more informational plant signs in the garden and posted plant lists online.

The in-person Master Gardener training shifted to online, but trainees were able to meet in small groups for hands-on learning in the Idea Garden by pruning raspberry brambles and fruit trees.

“The pandemic forced us to take a look at things that we’d been saying for years we needed to adjust,” Elder says, pointing to their expanded social media outreach as an example.

Award recipients receive $1,000 and a plaque. Recipients’ names also are engraved on a plaque displayed in the Illinois Human Resources Office on the Urbana-Champaign campus.

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Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities.