By Nancy Crawley
Amber Oudsema is the new face behind the manager’s desk at the Volunteer Office, but the 35-year-old Muskegon native is well known in many other roles at Meijer Gardens.
Most recently the weekend tram coordinator, Amber has also been a volunteer docent, an intern, and later a part-time employee in the education, sculpture and visitor services departments.
In fact, she has been a volunteer since high school in numerous places, from a veterinarian’s office to an archeology dig in Virginia. It gives her an appreciation of the value people from many walks of life bring to a nonprofit. “Coming from blue collar background, I appreciate people who work for free and what they are contributing,” she said.
Starting in June, Amber has spent her first month of the job learning from the Gardens’ longtime volunteer leader, Tom Hoving who is retiring after 14 years.
It has been a cram course in a wide variety of assignments: the complicated choreography of rotating hundreds of volunteers who help at the summer concerts, running the orientation sessions that draw dozens of new volunteers each quarter, planning for the annual volunteer picnic in July, all the holiday events, and mastering the administrative chores with having about 900 volunteers on the roster.
Until recently, Amber held down three part time jobs — a tram coordinator, ArtPrize education coordinator, and adjunct instructor of art history and appreciation at Muskegon Community College and Grand Valley State University. She plans to keep teaching, at least a course or a two a year.
She comes to her new role with a strong arts background. She grew up in a family that includes artists and craftspeople, but art history captured her imagination as a student at Muskegon Community College.
“The ancient Greeks are my favorites,” she said, and she traces their influence through history, even in the Gardens’ collection of contemporary sculpture.
She earned her undergraduate degree in art history at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids and her masters in art history at George Mason University in Virginia in 2012.
Amber steps into her new role just before the 22-year-old Gardens launches a major building project later this year. Those improvements will eventually attract more visitors and generate more demand for volunteers.
She welcomes the challenge, knowing the relationship between an organization and volunteer are vital to both.
“Individuals who donate their time and skills benefit both in health and welfare, many studies have shown,” Amber said. And, for the organization, “volunteering creates a real sense of community and then strengthens that community — that’s especially true at Meijer Gardens.”