I frequently visited Longwood Gardens, sometimes as often as once a week in the spring and summer. Each time I saw something different and was always happy to be there. Occasionally I took a book, found a secluded bench, and basked in the sunshine. I enjoyed even more the drab winter days when the Conservatory was a welcome oasis of color and fragrance. A yearly membership made it a bargain, and it was only twenty minutes away. Even the drive there was a pleasure, to Centerville and up the scenic Kennett Pike that Pierre du Pont once owned. As soon as I left my driveway, it was all good. Longwood Gardens always brought back pleasant childhood memories from the days when my parents and grandparents took my sister and me on a yearly Easter visit from Lansdowne, PA.
I had been going on weekday mornings on my membership pass when most of the work got done, and I often talked with the docents, guides, and workers. On several occasions they suggested I volunteer, assuring me, in hushed tones, that the organization treats their volunteers extremely well.
My wife and I have been volunteers for about two months, and everything they said was true and more. Longwood has over 1,000 volunteers. To put that in perspective, the salaried horticultural staff (the gardeners) is only about 90, and many of those work part-time.
There are so many perks, I feel like I am paid. We get free memberships, discounts at the excellent cafe, guest passes, parking in the employees lot (valuable on holidays), discounts on Longwood clothing—the list goes on and on.
But the main perk is being appreciated as valuable additions to the staff. They provide constant orientation and information classes to make us as knowledgeable as possible. They keep us supplied with current information on upcoming events and what is in bloom. They emphasize the more we know, the better we can fulfill our assignment. We are encouraged to poke around, ask questions of any of the staff, to go into areas marked “Employees only.” Anything we learn may be the answer to a visitor’s question. We are currently looking forward to an upcoming tour of the peripheral property, the large area surrounding the public gardens (see Longwood Sunflowers, 1/25/2011).
My wife and I are “Guest Information Volunteers” at the Peirce-du Pont House, the expanded original Peirce farmhouse going back to the 1700s that was bought by Pierre S. du Pont in 1906 and converted into a country retreat. (His legal residence where he stayed during the work week was the top floor of the Hotel du Pont in central Wilmington, about 12 miles away. His offices were on the floor below. Pierre and his wife were careful to maintain legal residency in Delaware, not Pennsylvania.)
Our job is to simply open conversations with visitors, suggest things to see (even other area museums), point out features of the House, and answer questions they may have. Many times I have done pretty much the same on my own for obviously puzzled visitors, but now I am “official.” The House is really a secondary attraction at Longwood, but it is the first stop for many new visitors, and we can then tell them about the other features.
We are expected to volunteer an average minimum of just one three-hour shift per month. We do not have to commit to a specific long-term time. They have an online calendar where we can sign up for any convenient open slot.
There are many other volunteer opportunities in diverse areas such as grounds keeping, office work, and record keeping, and we receive many emails on special projects needing temporary help, such as preparing displays and guiding non-English-speaking guests. Volunteers even operate the popular outdoor model railroad that runs in the fall. These are usually men from a local model railroad club.
The drive to Longwood from our house is as picturesque as any New England scene. My wife and I normally work together and eat our main meal in the cafe either before or after our shift, then linger a little longer in the Conservatory.
Could anything be more perfect? Whenever you are at Longwood, come to the Peirce-du Pont House and look puzzled. If we are there, we will latch right onto you.