Above: Paul Cushing indulges in his passion for orchids as he volunteers at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Photo by Phil Mosier.
When he was a teenager, Paul Cushing discovered orchids. He remembers walking through a garden store at Perimeter Mall, spotting his first orchid and being entranced. “From that,” he said recently, “a passion grew.”
He said he really doesn’t know why. “Orchids are just exciting to me,” he said. “They’re fascinating plants.”
Because of his interest in orchids, his dad took him to the city’s botanical garden, where the teen started volunteering to work on Saturdays. Through the years, he has continued to do volunteer work for the Atlanta Botanical Garden and his ties to the garden have grown. The 58-year-old Decatur lawyer has been the garden’s legal counsel and now holds a seat on its board of trustees.
In 2017, Cushing stopped working at the large Atlanta law firm where he was employed for 29 years, he said, and now he’s found more time to spend with his favorite flowers. He volunteers two mornings a week to help tend the orchids at the Botanical Garden’s complex in Midtown.
“It’s a way to contribute to the garden,” Cushing said, “and it gets me out of the house and lets me work with the flowers I care about.”
He’s joined hundreds, perhaps thousands, of metro Atlanta volunteers who spend time each week helping local cultural institutions. They water flowers, stuff envelopes, field phone calls, guide school groups through exhibits, give history lessons, raise money and do all sorts of other things that local museums, gardens and performing groups need done.
“They are incredibly important,” said Jayme Hogan-Yarbro, manager of volunteer and intern services at the Atlanta History Center.
And a lot of them are seniors. Atlanta Symphony Association president Joan Abernathy said her 200-member organization includes some active members who are their 80s and 90s. “We have women in their 80s, mid-80s, going gangbusters,” she said. “We’ve got one man in his mid-90s.”
Hogan-Yarbro estimated that more than half of the history center’s 320 volunteers are 60 or older. Many, she said, are retired teachers who like the educational aspects of their volunteer work.
The hours these volunteers put in are important to the institutions they serve precisely because they’re volunteered: they don’t cost any cash. “We save them thousands of dollars every year when we do things that [otherwise] would have to have staff,” Abernathy said.
The history center’s volunteers collectively contribute an average of 584 hours of work a month, Hogan-Yarbro said. Since 2012, she said, volunteers have provided about 60,680 hours of work. Volunteers have contributed more than $700,000 in labor to the center, she said, or about the cost of 18 paid staff members.
Members of the 70-year-old symphony association, called the ASA, support the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a variety of ways, including by serving as ushers during concerts for busloads of schoolchildren from around the metro area. ASA members also provide brunch for the musicians during the breaks between those educational concerts.
The organization sponsors social events, too. In fact, Abernathy said she first got interested in the ASO after a friend invited her to a chamber concert sponsored by the ASA. “It actually drew us into the ASO,” the 73-year-old Canton resident said.
Excitement over the ASO’s music also drew Nancy Poes to the orchestra. “I love the music,” she said. “It’s my greatest joy.” The 68-year-old Cobb County painter volunteers as an usher for ASO concerts and contributes artwork the symphony sells in its gift shop.
She’s been working as a volunteer usher for years, she said, and she now helps patrons find their seats at 25 to 30 shows a year. She always signs up for the same post: “the second door left on the orchestra level.” Her seat in the alcove, she said, offers especially good views of the violas and pianists.
“I get there early because I want that spot,” she said. She’s gotten to know some of the season-ticket holders who return to that section so the concerts can become social events. “I live such a solitary life because I’m a painter,” she said, “[but at concerts] I get to see all my friends.”
Still, it’s the music that keeps her coming back. “The music is so beautiful,” she said. “Music is opposition to painting, which is what I do. It is fleeting. You have to be there in the moment.”
Mary Beth Abbott is interested in moments that passed long ago. Long, long ago. The 66-year-old Decatur woman volunteers as a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, located at Emory University. A transplant from Chicago who worked in the medical products business, Abbott first learned about the Carlos museum when she was reading up to prepare for a trip to Egypt, she said. “It’s a bit of a hidden gem,” she said.
As a docent, she leads groups of museumgoers, many of them schoolchildren, through the displays of Egyptian mummies and other antiquities and through special museum exhibits. She encourages them to talk about what they see and to think about the people who used the things on display. “We’re encouraged to make it a dialogue,” she said. “You’re looking at objects from people’s lives.”
She’s constantly learning new things as a docent, she said, and that’s an important part of what appeals to her about it. “Half of our time is spent learning about the exhibits and special exhibits. It’s a constant learning. It’s wonderful,” she said.
“This is what the second phase of my life should be about,” she said.
Gloria Tyburcvy is also interested in the past, although the events and people she deals with are a bit more recent than the ones in the Carlos’ displays. The 74-year-old retired Cartersville healthcare worker regularly volunteers as a docent at the Booth Museum.
The museum claims to have the country’s the largest permanent exhibition space for the art of the U.S. West, and the Booth’s emphasis on the West appealed to Tyburcvy. “I love old westerns,” she said. “I was a Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy kid when I was growing up.”
As a docent, Tyburcvy leads tours of the museum’s collection. She talks to schoolchildren about western history and culture ranging from the Louisiana Purchase to the many ways to use a buffalo, she said. On special occasions, such as the museum’s annual cowboy festival, she can become part of the exhibit herself by dressing up as “One-Eyed” Charley Parkhurst, a celebrated 19th century stagecoach driver and rancher who, at death, was discovered to be a woman after a long life lived in the guise of man.
Tyburcvy said she has logged more than 240 hours of volunteer work at the Booth. “It’s just been super learning about something I didn’t know,” she said. “It’s a process of learning. You learn something new every day.”
Working at the museum allows her to meet new people. “The main thing is I love people. I am a people person,” she said, “and I want to talk to them. My mother used to tell me, ‘You’re not afraid of anybody, are you?’ I said, ‘Nope.’ I just enjoy meeting people. If you’re sitting with me, you’re going to have to talk in self-defense, because I’m going to talk to you.”
Others say they, too, see their volunteer work as the chance to interact with new people. Edwina Sellan, a volunteer usher with the Alliance Theatre in Midtown is quick to say she’s at every opening night of every play for the patrons, not the plays.
“I’m in it for actually greeting the patrons,” the 69-year-old Brookhaven resident said. “I have my spiel that I’m going to say, and it’s fun. When they walk in and you make a smile and compliment their hats and shoes, they go, ‘Oh.’ … “I’m a people person. I like just being there in the front line, I’m the first person they see. [When I greet them,] it just puts a smile on their faces. I like it.”
She calls volunteer work “part of my mechanism for my Fountain of Youth.” It’s not stressful, she said, and she gets a lift from her chats with members of the Alliance audience.
“It keeps me young,” she said.
How to Volunteer
If you’re interested in volunteering to work at any of these local institutions, you can contact them and learn more about their volunteer programs through the following phone numbers or websites.
Alliance Theatre: alliancetheatre.org/content/ushers, 404-733-4650
Atlanta Botanical Garden: atlantabg.org/volunteer, 404-876-5859
Atlanta History Center: atlantahistorycenter.com/support#get-involved, 404-814-4000
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: atlantasymphony.org/Giving/Volunteer.aspx, 404-733-4900
The Booth Museum, boothmuseum.org/volunteer, 770-387-1300
Michael C. Carlos Museum, carlos.emory.edu/docent-guild, 404-727-4282