Gill’s Decades as a Zoo Volunteer

man standing holding stickGill has been volunteering for the Master Gardeners at the Virginia Zoo since 1991. Yep, he’s been a volunteer here for 30 years officially on April 7! He got started as a horticulture volunteer after attending a class and fulfilling the position after a previous volunteer left. Over his decades as a volunteer, Gill has helped develop and grow the gardening program in the Zoo’s Africa garden, eventually heading up the project and overseeing large groups of volunteers. While COVID has prohibiting these large groups from gathering, nothing has dampened Gill’s spirits to continue doing what he loves.

“I’m always teaching in the garden, I teach as we go,” says Gill. ” If we find a worm, we’ll discuss entomology, and if we see something we always talk about it while planting and such. I think Horticulture and Education is one in the same. You need both to make it complete.”

When you volunteer over the course of several decades, Gill has seen the Zoo change and also had his hands in cultivating our growth, but what stands out most to him are the people. ” Anyone I’ve ever met here have been some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.” One person in particular has planted roots deep into Gill’s heart – Mark Schneider, a former Horticulturist at the Zoo.

man next to willow tree

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a nicer man than him. When he left the Zoo, I asked what kind of ceremony he was going to have. When I heard there was nothing planned for him, I asked what he wanted, what his favorite tree was.” Gill and his volunteer group personally went and bought a willow tree that day and planted it in his honor. “We donated it to the Zoo. For Mark. It was an important event for me. He had to be remembered at the Zoo because he was just one of the nicest people I had ever met.”

Gill also does volunteer work for a children’s garden in East Ocean View. “It is normally a year-round garden that has been closed since last year (due to the pandemic) and I was able to reopen it this week. We tilled it and just started planting.” In this garden, Gill helps teach children about planting and harvesting vegetables, the only program of its kind in this area. “When I watch children’s faces as they cut a big tomato or eggplant off of a plant, you can’t get anymore joy than that. Picking cucumbers was a major event one time for this child’s life; she was so excited to know where food comes from. I just love teaching them.”

man holding large vegetables

While Gill enjoys his time in the garden now, it has been a life-long passion for him. ” I was born on a farm and I’m still farming today. It is basically my life. If I can be in a garden, I’m happy, whether it is at the Zoo or somewhere else.”

Gill also enjoys all of the memories he’s made at the Zoo. “The memories I have are those special events-type things. The time my children came to plant the Acacia trees in Africa was a big moment for us. We had the whole family here plus others helping us plant those trees. My grandchildren were here to help plant the trees and still come back to see them when they visit the Zoo.”

Gill’s grandson also had only one request for his graduation: to feed the giraffes. “It was a perfect day. My friend, a photographer, came and got hundreds of pictures of all of the family feeding the giraffes and exploring the Zoo that day.”

When Gill’s wife passed away, her quilting group wanted to do something in her honor so they worked together to acquire donations for a train seat plaque and ceremony. “They did that, not me,” says Gill. “These are the main events for me. That’s quality time. The highlights of my 30 years (of volunteering) are those types of things.”

quilt on train bench with plaque

If you want to personally thank Gill, you may have to rearrange your schedule to get the worm with this early bird. ” I like to come in and get the work done and out of the way so it’s nice for people to look at when they get here. I don’t mind getting up early and coming to the Zoo at least once a week.” Gill continues to volunteer his time at the Zoo and we are grateful and extremely appreciative for his dedicated service to us over the years.

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