By Christine Chessler-Stull, Volunteer Coordinator, and Liz Glynn, Visitor Engagement – K-12 Education

Key to our education team, docents spark curiosity about and love of nature in kids of all ages. Through our school and youth programming, docents promote nature education to engage tomorrow’s environmental leaders.

Many of the docents say it’s the combination of personal interest and educational development that inspires them to share their knowledge and enthusiasm. In the last fall-winter term and this spring, docents generously gave 2,250 hours of their time! Scroll down for docent stories and photos.

Docents and student interns

Docents and and student interns at Matthaei-Nichols getting ready for a day with the group of high school students participating in Wolverine Pathways.

Docents engage youth in field trips that are rooted in Next Generation Science Standards—and in discovery and wonder. Programs run the gamut from water quality and ecosystem exploration to paper making and faerie door construction.

Our robust training and ongoing education equip docents as nature educators for K-12 children in all of our youth programs.

We hope these stories inspire and excite you to learn more about this program. Contact the Volunteer Coordinator: to discuss ways to get involved.

Editor’s note: This story appears in shorter form in the fall 2019 Matthaei-Nichols newsletter.

Docents Tell Their Stories

Marisa Eppler, docent for 7 years

“Like a lot of people, I believe in giving something of myself to the community. Being a docent allows me to do that, but I get so much more in return. I am a retired teacher, and for me, being a docent is teaching in an ideal setting. 

I love the challenge of adapting programs and experiences to children of different ages and interests. I really enjoy expanding my knowledge and experiences through the training and interaction with the staff here and the members of the docent team and our leader, Liz. I feel valued, and that my contribution is meaningful. This a very enthusiastic place and volunteers are given much and treated with great respect.”   

Some stories stay with me: The day a second-grade child gave me a spontaneous enthusiastic hug around my knees and shouted ‘This was the best day ever!'” Also watching (and guiding) as too-cool high school students give in to their natural curiosity and sense of fun while participating in water-quality assessment activities.

Kathy Friedrichs, docent for 2 years

I love showing the kids what magical resources we have at Matthaei and watch their eyes light up. It brings me great joy.  

My most memorable experience was very simple, but after taking a group of second graders on the Sam Graham trail, a young girl reached over and gave me a big hug. Her way, I believe, for showing me that the magic of Matthaei had really touched her.

Greg Nowak, docent for 1.5 years         

Volunteering as a Matthaei docent is an incredible opportunity to work with world-class people and a world-class organization. I am constantly learning and sharing knowledge with people of all ages, especially the children whose levels of interest, enthusiasm, and unbridled joy are contagious and rejuvenating. 

While each of our school groups brings its own special set of qualities, a recent third-grade group was exceptional from start to finish; providing a steady stream of insightful questions and comments along with a high level of interest and a positive and motivated demeanor! An amazing experience!

Wendy Zellers, docent for 3 years

Not only do I get to impart information about the importance of plants and the environment to school children (things about which I am pretty devoted), I also get to learn so much from the kids. It is a truly wonderful experience.         

There are so many wonderful and memorable experiences but one I keep coming back to happened just this past June.  I had a group of 5th graders, and I started out with my usual opening discussion “Why are plants important” dialogue. We reviewed the fact that plants are the basis of all food on the surface of the earth; plants are also the sole source of oxygen (another of life’s necessities); additionally, plants are a major source of medications, building materials, paper, etc. Then one kid in the group said “yeah, but they are also beautiful… plants, flowers, trees we should keep them healthy because they are so beautiful to look at.”  My heart melted. I stopped short of asking if he needed an additional grandmother, ’cause I would have applied for the job!

Docents and schoolchildren at Matthaei
Leslie Kellman, docent for 3 years     

I get to share my passion for the environment.  I love when students make a connection between something in the conservatory or trail and every day life-where some of their favorites foods come from, the role of wetlands, going through Great Lakes Gardens natural communities that represent places they have traveled.  With some of the programs such as Wolverine Pathways and the Great Lakes Garden program,  students are engaging in hands on science and using their findings to devise solutions to real world problems.          

“A couple of summers ago we had a group out here for a field trip. We decided to have the students draw some of the plants an animals that they observed.  One girl was  quite nervous being outside as she was afraid of insects.  She started drawing a bee from four or five feet away and by the time she finished her drawing, she was only a few inches away.  For the rest of the morning, she wanted to see and draw everything along the trail.

Any experience when a student says, “”This was the best field trip of my whole life!””  (Usually from a five or six year old.

Dave Wooten, docent for 4.5 years

My greatest joy in working with the fabulous students that visit MBG is what I learn from them. They have a clarity of view that puts into perspective that while most interrelationships of ecosystems are complex, the best learning experiences really should be built on the fundamental beauty of nature. The kids see that more readily than us adults and if we really listen to them they can give us cues on how they best learn and we should encourage that learning methodology while still meeting the learning objectives.

Bill Henderson, docent for 12 years

I really enjoy being in the woods, and working with the youth thru this program gives me and them an opportunity to experience learning together.  We own and manage a 1400 acre qualified forest in Presque Isle and Alpena counties in northern Michigan, so the more often I can be in the woods the happier I am. 

One of my most memorable moments over the years happened when we were giving a tour to 3/4th graders from the Detroit Schools.  As I was outlining to the group what we were going to do, a young lady announced that she would not cross the bridge going around Willow Pond.  I assured her that the bridge was safe, but if she still has concerns when we got to that point i would walk her back the way we had come.  She crossed the bridge and then when we stopped to look at the duck wee on the edge of the pond we found a complete exoskeleton of a large dragonfly nymph.  She asked if she could hold it and then asked is she could take it over to the other groups to show them.   She was very proud and excited to show off what she had found and I was so rewarded that I had the opportunity to watch this young lady and so many other students grow and become attached to the natural world.

Ruth Graves, docent for 28 years

I’ve been a docent for 28 years and have never tired of it. There is always something new to see and learn about the plants and also the children.

Crystal Keller, docent for 2 years

Serving as a docent allows me to promote an awareness of plants and foster an appreciation of the essential role that plants play in allowing all other life on Earth to exist. If a garden tour encourages self-reflection, curiosity, or a sense of place in the world, so much the better.

List of active docents (as of fall 2019 newsletter publication):

Carol Barnett, Allison Birkbeck, Mindy Brummet, Kathryn Clark, Martha Claus, Linda Dres, Marisa Eppler, Lynn Fouchey, Tom Freeman, Kathleen Friedrichs, Beth Gilford, Ruth Graves, William Henderson, Deborah Hoffman, Edith Hurst, Linda Irvin, Crystal Keller, Leslie Kellman, Marie Konopacki, Leslie Larkins, Barbara MacKenzie, Barbara Major, Merrie Malerich, Carole Moody, Greg Nowak, Ronald Oblander, Barbara Osher, Pat Patail, Barbara Powell, Marsha Rinke, Tim Romlein, Leonardo Savage, Nancy Smith, Susan Starr, Charlene Tavarozzi, Nancy Wickland, Kathy Wirstrom, David Wooten, Marilyn Wooten, Wendy Zellers, Rosemary Ziemba.