Volunteer of the Year: Nancy LePage

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Volunteer of the Year Nancy LePage (second from left) pictured with Meijer Gardens Volunteer Manager Amber Oudsema (left), HR Manager Angela Violet (second from right) and HR/Volunteer Coordinator Jess Knapp (right)

By Nancy Crawley

Don’t look for the 2017 Volunteer Of The Year in the main halls of Meijer Gardens or the conservatories or the outdoor gardens.

You’ll find Nancy LePage in the lower-level offices, far from the pathways used by visitors and most other volunteers.

There, the cheerful, hard-working 73-year-old spends two or three days a week doing secretarial work for the bustling communications department.

She manages files and archives, inputs data, updates the website, proofreads, and does tedious jobs that demand time and concentration. “I tell people I’ll do any dirt job,” she says with a laugh and twinkle in her eyes.

A volunteer for about 14 years, Nancy was honored Oct. 25 at the annual Connie Snell Volunteer Recognition Dinner where hundreds of volunteers as well as staff members gathered to recognize outstanding volunteers.

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Nancy LePage presented with her award

There, with tears in her eyes, the surprised and delighted Nancy received her award, and lots of hugs, from Meijer Gardens President and CEO David Hooker and Volunteer Manager Amber Oudsema. Of course, communications staffers were in the audience to cheer for her.

Nancy is a transplant from the east side of the state. She was born and raised in Northwest Detroit, and she and her husband Ron raised three children in Woodhaven, south of Detroit.

She held a variety of jobs, including executive secretary at the Society of Manufacturing Engineers headquarters in Dearborn. Later, she ran her own secretarial services business.

After they retired, the couple moved to the Grand Rapids area to be near their daughter and grandchildren. It wasn’t long after she arrived that a neighbor suggested she try volunteering at Meijer Gardens.

But Nancy didn’t start out in the communications office. First, she tried several other volunteer roles. When the communications spot opened, she was interviewed by the director of communications, Roger Bleiler. “We really hit it off,” she said, and now she enjoys working with the entire staff.

She has been in the office for 12 years, working 12-14 hours a week. In total, she has chalked up more than 5,600 volunteer hours.

“As you age, you want to feel useful, that your talents and skills are beneficial,” she said. “If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t do it.”


Nancy pictured with Meijer Gardens President & CEO David Hooker

Remembering Helen DeVos


Helen and Richard DeVos at the opening of the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden

We are saddened by the news of Mrs. Helen DeVos’ passing. Her support of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park and institutions in West Michigan and beyond is cherished and will never be forgotten.

The DeVos’ incredible generosity made the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden possible. It is a world of timeless tranquility that has been enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of visitors and will continue to inspire for many years to come.

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Sunrise in the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden

“While we grieve her passing, we rejoice in her new life in heaven and are grateful for the countless ways she blessed our lives. We are comforted in knowing that she was welcomed home into the loving arms of Jesus,” her family said in a statement. “We will never forget her unfailing love, strength and devotion that were truly the heart of our family.”

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the death of our dear friend, Helen DeVos,” said Meijer Gardens President and CEO David Hooker, “Mrs. DeVos led a life of service and distinction that is an inspiration to all people. Personally, my life has been significantly enriched by getting to know Mrs. DeVos over the years and witnessing the way she chose to live her life. From the conversations at the many cultural events I had the pleasure to see her at, to the times when I was privileged to spend extended periods of time touring Meijer Gardens with her, Mrs. DeVos was always engaging and a ton a fun to be with. Her humor and grace were truly very special. I was always very impressed by the way she took the time to greet many strangers and share kind words and make connections to mutual friends and family. Meijer Gardens is extraordinarily blessed to have her name along with her husband’s on our Japanese garden. The garden has quickly become a favorite of the West Michigan community and has attracted people from around the world. During our tours together of the Japanese garden, she would often thank me and the Meijers for the opportunity to be part of this amazing place of peace, tranquility, and harmony. We are all very fortunate to be the beneficiaries of her generosity. We will miss her and are extremely thankful we could call Mrs. DeVos a friend. Through Christian faith she has now claimed her resurrection. The rest of us are left with our memories of her and the things she has done to make our world a better place. Along with her faith journey, her greatest legacy is her children and grandchildren and their families. Dick, Dan, Cheri, and Doug’s lives are a reflection of their mother’s values, dedication to family and her example as a woman of service. Our community is enormously blessed to have all her children living here in West Michigan as leaders and committing themselves to making our community the best place to live and work in all the land.”

Hooker also shared a personal story of another time his life was changed by the DeVos family. “Twenty-six years ago my son was born 23 weeks premature and spent 99 days in what eventually became Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Many years later I toured the new Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Tears of joy streamed down my face as I walked around and saw the incredible facilities and scores of professionals there to care for children and families in need. We have a resource that is beyond fantastic to serve others in times of great need. One measure of a community is how it takes care of its children. West Michigan measures very well indeed. Thank you, Helen DeVos, for the way you lived your life and for all the good works you did to make other lives better.”


Meijer Gardens President and CEO David Hooker, Helen and Richard DeVos, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder at the opening of the Richard & Helen DeVos Japanese Garden in 2015


For more, watch this story from WOODTV8 that details Mrs. DeVos’ dedication to the arts and culture of West Michigan and beyond.

Tribute locations to change with expansion


If you have visited recently, you’ll notice that expansion of our main campus as part of our capital campaign Welcoming the World: Honoring a Legacy of Love has begun! It is because of the generous gifts of friends old and new that we are able to expand the reach of our mission and welcome many more guests in the future. Truly, a project this transformational reminds us of our foundational beginnings, a legacy of generosity we will continue to commemorate.

As part of the expansion project, many locations at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park will be affected. If your contribution has supported the installation of a stepping stone, brick or other item, or has named an element of a previous capital campaign, then please know that we will continue to honor and recognize your gift. The placement of your tribute item may not be in the exact same location, but it will be located in an appropriate, beautiful area. When our renovation is complete, we will let you know if its new location.

For more information on the capital campaign, we invite you to view our website at meijergardens.org/growing for more details on the project and campaign.

If you have any questions, please contact Anne Benson, Director of Development & Membership, at (616) 975-3177 or abenson@meijergardens.org.

Inside/Outside: An Interactive Sculpture Experience for Families


Essay by Linda Thompson, Former Director of Education

Imagination meets interactivity in Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park’s newest sculpture experience, “Inside/Outside: An Interactive Sculpture Experience for Families.” The space was created to welcome families to this engaging new space, which was intentionally designed to encourage even the youngest children to experience the connection between sculpture and horticulture. It’s four-season fun, for all ages.

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Each of the eight educational stations includes a hands-on activity that underscores the main concept of the featured sculpture. Experience kinetic sculpture by moving a unique inspiration of George Rickey’s “Four Open Squares Horizontal Gyratory–Tapered” using your own strength as wind power. Create representations of Joan Miró’s “Woman and Bird” using selected recognizable found objects and magnets to personalize your work. Turn panels to create “shape designs” á la Louise Nevelson’s “Atmosphere and Environment XI.” Family-friendly signage accompanies all eight stations, to explain the significance of both the sculptures and the artists themselves — including interesting tidbits about the artists as children.

One sculpture, George Segal’s “Woman in Armchair,” begs kids to use their imaginations as they sit in a similar armchair and model the same body language as the figure while asking their parents to take a picture of them. Kids can then select their favorite background scene and “become” the sculpture itself.

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Even the flooring in this new exhibition is interactive. As you explore the space, note the digitally-printed carpeting that includes a meandering pathway through all four seasons and dozens of hidden images. This unusual search-and-find activity will surely delight guests, from toddlers to teens. Further defining the path will be photographic panels emphasizing the horticultural setting of each sculpture. Activity cards challenge kids to partner with their parents and tackle activities inside the exhibition space and outdoors, too.

“Inside/Outside: An Interactive Sculpture Experience for Families” is yet another way Meijer Gardens encourages children to bond with sculpture and foster a lifetime enjoyment of the arts. This intriguing exhibition experience will remain open until a new one replaces it in the upcoming Covenant Learning Center, which will feature permanent space dedicated to interactive family exhibitions.

Inside/Outside: An Interactive Sculpture Experience for Families opens Friday, September 15, 2017! 

Jess Hart steps into new role


Jessica Hart, Education Director. Photo by Nancy Crawley

By Nancy Crawley

Jessica Hart takes over as education director at an important pivot point for Meijer Gardens.

The 34-year-old suburban Boston native becomes the first new education leader in 17 years — just as The Gardens launches a major expansion this fall.

That includes construction of a 20,000-square-foot Covenant Learning Center that dramatically increases classroom space for the tens of thousands of school students who visit every year. Last year, 40,000 students alone streamed through the halls.

Starting her new job June 1, Jess, as she prefers to be called, succeeded Linda Thompson who retired after many years with the Gardens.

“I’m so excited about the opportunities that will come with the new education center,” Jess said. “It means a tripling of space that allows us to increase classroom activities and incorporate educational technology in new ways.”

The Learning Center will be a merging and expansion of the lower level classrooms, pushing space out toward the wetlands.

Jess is already familiar with the Gardens’ educational programming. For 2 1/2 years, she was indoor education manager, supervising scores of docents and Bus Buddy volunteers and the whole range of indoor activities for school groups.

With a staff of 12, Jess now manages a department that oversees outdoor school visits, summer  camps and Children’s Gardens events, classes for adults and families, bus trips, the various lecture series, programming for sculpture exhibits, the library and the many weekend and special events programs.

As the educational component grows to serve more students, “we hope to expand that staff in the years to come,” she said.

Jess comes with a strong background in education. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English literature at Boston University, she obtained a Massachusetts teaching license.

She traveled the country, working for a private firm specializing in literacy strategies. Before coming to Michigan, she lived in Louisiana, Colorado, Wyoming and Alaska, training teachers in literacy skills.  “It was great fun to travel, see new places and meet people,” she said.

She enjoys being outdoors, loves hiking and kayaking, and making annual trips to Maine to savor the rugged terrain, not mention the fresh seafood. She is also a gardener, putting in a large vegetable plot every summer. And in the fall, she gets busy putting up decorations to welcome trick or treaters at Halloween. “I have a new theme every year.”

Working at the Gardens has been a great fit for her, she said. “I love being here, it’s such an inspiring, exciting place with a fabulous team of talented and dedicated people.”

Hard-working volunteers take the night off for potluck


By Nancy Crawley 

Pulled pork, fancy casseroles, diet-busting desserts and lots of laughs were on the menu for the annual Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park Volunteer Potluck Dinner.

“I like the sense of family here, they’re all good people,” said Lena Meijer Children’s Garden volunteer Pam Rowe, who attended with her husband Steve.

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Pam Rowe, second from right, enjoys the sense of family among Gardens volunteers. She sits with her husband, Steve, right, and from left, Steve Beckwith and his wife, Francesca, both second-year volunteers. (Photo by Nancy Crawley)

About 200 joined in the fun Thursday, July 13 at the Gardens banquet hall, dining on dishes homemade by volunteers as well as steaming trays of pulled pork and tempting desserts provided by the Gardens.

A slide show of volunteers in action ran on screens through the evening. And after dinner, applause and good natured guffaws rang out as raffle prizes, like gourmet pasta, symphony tickets and a wine and cheese tasting, were handed out to lucky winners.


Tram volunteers enjoy the slide show.  From left, Jesse Stewart and his wife, Becky, Bob Goddard and Jay Kilpatrick.

Some volunteers are regulars at the long-running event.

“I’ve been coming as long as I’ve been volunteering, 20 years. I remember when they were grilling chicken outdoors” for dinner, said Sarabeth Carr who donates her time in the library.

Others were brand new to the event. Deborah Link has volunteered for three years, but this was her first potluck. She wanted to meet fellow volunteers and quickly found herself enjoying the evening with Sarabeth and Ardath McCall, a docent and 14-year volunteer.

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Sarabeth Carr, left, has attended potluck dinners since the Gardens’ early days. She is sitting with Ardath McCall, a docent and 14-year volunteer and, at right, Deborah Link, a 3-year volunteer who is attending her first potluck. (Photo by Nancy Crawley)

It was also the first potluck for the Gardens’ new volunteer manager, Amber Oudsema, who was mistress of ceremony. She was following in the footsteps of retired volunteer manager Tom Hoving.

“Tom said this was always one of his favorite events,” she told the crowd as the evening wrapped up. “I can tell it will be one of mine too.”

Welcome Amber, our new Volunteer Manager!

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.


Amber Oudsema was most recently encountered at the tram office on weekends.  (Photo by Nancy Crawley)

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.”