Gratitude Celebration 48: Passionate Leadership

“Would you like to work for me tomorrow and pot up all these ferns?” That was the beginning of my six-year job with George Sanko at the Georgia Perimeter College Native Plant Garden. I had been fascinated by the garden when I first went there with John Reiter for the informal Christmas Party when he volunteered there.

It was December, and something called me about that place. “I’d like to work here!” I remember thinking. A few months later, I was! My job at the Waldorf School had abruptly ended, and I was floundering around about what to do. George’s invitation to pot up the hundred or so ferns that he and John and I had just dug up from the nearby quarry really excited me. The next day, I learned how he did it, and, in a few hours had transformed that bag of floppy fern rhizomes into six rows of half-gallon pots.

He asked me to come back!

For my first couple of years there, I vowed to do only what he said. I didn’t want to lose that job! Even when I thought I had a better way, I simply did what he told me, and I thrived there. There was something satisfying about potting up hundreds of ferns, which usually I would only see in the woods.

Soon, George asked me to help sell the plants at the regular Wednesday sales. As I listened to him and the other garden employees, Katherine and Kathleen, I got familiar with what to say to customers. Mainly, “Do you need something for sun or shade?”  With just that information, I could point them to the native plants that would work for them.

One day, near the end of my third season, George said, “Regina, I want you to go through the growing area and make a list of everything you think needs to be done.”  Apparently, he was pleased with my answers because the next season he promoted me to “Sales Manager.” For my last two years there, he turned the sales area over to me to set up and run the Wednesday sales. Of course, he would tell me what to do when he had his opinion, but he usually approved of how I had done things.

During that last season at the garden, however, I felt less and less in sync with his mission. I DID see other ways I would take the garden and the sales. He wasn’t interested. I was also working at The Living Foods Institute, feeling more and more attuned to the philosophy there and not with George.  In addition, John and I had started going for one to two-week walks on the Appalachian Trail. That was fine with George, especially because I would come back with increased knowledge about the actual native habitats of the native plants, giving me even more skill at recommending plants to our customers. Those outings, however, made my heart yearn to be right out there with the plants, not enclosed in the high fence of the sales area with all the plants in pots.

Then, in September of 2006, I decided that I would, indeed, walk the Appalachian Trail the following spring. I wanted to work full-time at Living Foods and train for my walk. I told George at the end of the fall season that I would end my work there. To my surprise, it came easy to say! It was easy to tell him that I was very grateful to have had the chance to work with him for those six years and that I wanted to go hike the Appalachian Trail. His response?  “Yes! You are smart to do that now while you still can! Don’t wait! You’ve done really good job here, and we’ll miss you, but I think that’s a great idea!”

George Sanko will always be one of the people at the top of my list for having a dream and going after it, day after day, step after step, never giving up. His Native Plant Garden has been a passion project like few I know. It was a healing place for me to mend my broken self-worth after falling from grace at the Waldorf School.  It was a happy community of people for me to spend time with, enjoying our lunch breaks together out in the garden. It was the source of thousands of dollars worth of plant material that I could bring home for John to plant in our landscape. It was the source of hands-on learning about native plants. It even provided short-term employment for two of my sons!

George Sanko and his Native Plant Garden will always ring the Gratitude Bell in my heart!



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