Jean Ponzi promotes environmental education for kids, business people, and the general public as program manager for the Gateway Center for Resource Efficiency, a division of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Monday, 21 Apr 2003


Earth Week. In my business — environmental education — this strip on the calendar includes actual Earth Day, April 22. In just three decades of official acknowledgement, that date has sprawled, in the manner of Christmas, into a virtual season of green.

People whose interests are black and white, blue, or checkered get the urge to energize their connection with all things green around Earth Day, and the calls flood in to people like me seeking classes, speakers, tours, staffing of outreach tables at events, and activity recommendations that range from basics like recycling to affecting legislation on complicated environmental issues.

This is the most demanding period in the annual cycle of my profession. Although I’ve been known to moan and kvetch about the public tendency to cram environmental citizenship into one month or week or day in the year, I do appreciate how Earth Day has popularized subjects I believe can usefully green most fields of endeavor. And at the rate humankind is going, I certainly have job security — as long as I keep writing grants!

Martha Stewart’s Christmas pales in comparison to some of my Earth Days, but the schedule for this week is only moderately intensive, even with events on all seven days. I’ll be teaching at a middle school Earth Day celebration (six sessions, 350 kids), meeting with state legislators and regulatory officials during a citizen lobby day, preparing for two big weekend festivals, broadcasting the 15th-anniversary edition of my weekly environmental radio talk show, and responding to various last-minute requests that are sure to come before this verdant month is over.

I am one of two managers of the Gateway Center for Resource Efficiency, a division of Missouri Botanical Garden. We specialize in environmental education in the topical areas of energy efficiency, recycling and waste reduction, green building, and related practical applications of sustainability. We’ve been in this business since 1988, I joined the team in ’95, and we became part of the Garden in 2000. My job still includes some actual teaching, but much less than in earlier years. I give plenty of public presentations, take care of a lot of our division’s outreach writing, and do much of our grant-writing and development research. In between the cracks of these main responsibilities, I try to keep up with the low maintenance needs of our building’s native plant garden, working with one volunteer Master Gardener who is a most precious resource.

I use the term “business” to describe Gateway Center because we strive to balance the input and output of what we do, including our personal energies, money, and the mission we serve. We are a nonprofit operation, part of a major regional cultural institution with an international reputation, and we work hard at modeling and promoting applied ecological principles that can truly green both practice and profits. Deborah Chollet, our division’s director and my friend, has a business and engineering background. I’ve learned a lot from her about focused, effective nonprofit management, and about giving others the benefit of the doubt.

Visitors tour the EarthWays Home.

Photo: Dale Dufer.

This morning Deb and I gave an informal tour of our headquarters, the EarthWays Home, which is one of a number of satellite sites of Missouri Botanical Garden’s main campus. We work in a three-story Victorian house that was built in 1885 and renovated in 1994 to demonstrate energy and resource efficiency in a residential context. The idea is that anybody of any age, who does any kind of job, can identify with and adopt into their lives examples of sustainability “at home.” The house is one of a handful of green buildings in the St. Louis region, and it’s a major tool for communicating our resource conservation message.

Our guests were new colleagues, staff of the Botanical Society of America, which recently affiliated with Missouri Botanical Garden and moved its operation to St. Louis. We chatted about our respective purposes, theirs being promoting botany and botanical advances, with a growing emphasis on reaching student populations. It’s gratifying when staff of other parts of the Garden take the time to learn about our work and our facility, especially because our subject matter may not initially seem to be connected with plants.

One of my favorite things about working for the Garden is interaction with fellow employees. The level of discourse is intelligent, good-humored, witty, and vivid with expertise in many scientific and professional disciplines. Collegial relations are a delightfully stimulating benefit of my job, whether the subject is a researcher’s latest taxonomic travels, a horticulturist’s fond knowledge of pond ecosystems, or the HVAC guy’s personal interest in and skill with photovoltaics.

I enjoy learning from my coworkers, and sharing what I know about greening the human-built environment. Being part of an institution that is dedicated to conservation and environmental education, I feel encouraged and supported in this work of problem-solving insoluble problems. I get to know a lot of people for whom Earth Day is every day, and when my spirit needs a break, I can take a walk in the Garden.