Young nurtures garden, and those who love it
By Lou Fancher
If Karen Young's broad, green footprint is as effective in Walnut Creek as it was in Portland, the Contra Costa County garden community stands to profit.
Hired in January as the new executive director for The Gardens at Heather Farm, the San Francisco native brings business acumen, people skills, a philosophy aligned with a book and a dog named Olive to the position.
Young's financial know-how comes from her work with national health organizations like the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the American Heart Association.
"Health organizations have systems in place so I've run special events and dealt with privacy issues, securing records, budget policies," Young said.
Organizations that have been at the nucleus of her career are nonprofits often founded by single leaders, slimly staffed and manned by a crowd of volunteers -- the perfect environment for honing the art of getting along with people.
Serving as the executive director of Leach Botanical Garden in Portland for 5 1/2 years before coming to Walnut Creek, Young initiated and completed Master Garden plans that included a major property acquisition, terrace hardscape renovations and rain garden and herb garden projects.
"I've learned how to deal with founders with passion but lacking in business skills," Young said. "I discovered I didn't have to change everything, and I recognize that people have a hard time with change. I like developing planning processes that honor everyone's ideas."
The Gardens at Heather Farm can use a stable leader to pull together the committed, but loosely woven as of late strands represented by the board, staff, volunteers and the larger community. Before Young, Beth Schecter served as the interim director before Deb Grove was hired in summer 2014. Grove's tenure lasted only a few months before the board chose to conduct a new search.
"I know they've had staff turnover," Young said. "They needed healing, people to create something and move forward. My focus is that we're an organization for the public. We have to keep our minds on what we're giving to them, not on the past difficulties."
Garden Manager Brian Larsen crossed paths with Young while working with Portland Nursery and Friends of the Trees. Larsen is enthusiastic about The Garden's new director.
"She has extreme experience in running a public garden. Developing our master plan, she knows we depend on the generosity of strangers," Larsen said. "She knows how to plan for the long term. A garden's a living, breathing creature, a constantly changing canvas. It has more than one single goal."
Young has used her first months in the job to acquaint herself with garden stakeholders and volunteers, city staff, local business leaders and the garden's mission to influence and educate the public.
Placing her hand on a book she keeps nearby -- it's likely she's memorized it with repeated readings -- author Richard Louv's best-selling "Last Child in the Woods" is a clear inspiration. Louv writes often, and most passionately, about connecting people and the natural world.
"Kids are our future," said Young, a grandmother who accepted this post partly to live close to them. But speaking of the entire younger generation, she said, "If we don't get their hands in the soil, they'll be on their phones. We need to integrate -- help kids not be afraid of bugs, then look bugs up on their phones to learn more about them."
Aiming for experiential education in the garden, Young plans partnerships with organizations like East Bay MUD and others. She also is considering an expanded youth nature camp and adult education in cooperation with the city to expand a compost system.