West Linn volunteer creates $1.2 million gift for OSU Master Gardener program

July 16, 2012
Sherry Sheng and Spike Wadsworth. Photo by Jan Sonnenmair for OSU Foundation.
Sherry Sheng and Spike Wadsworth in their garden in West Linn. (Photo by Jan Sonnenmair.)

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University's Master Gardener program has received a commitment for a $1.2 million estate gift to endow the director’s position – the largest gift in the program’s 36-year history.

As part of the OSU Extension Service, the program offers courses on gardening throughout the state and online. Graduates, known as Master Gardeners, are then expected to spread their new knowledge to others by volunteering to answer questions or teach at Extension offices, farmers markets, workshops and community gardens.

Since 2005 Sherry Sheng of West Linn has been one of the program’s most active volunteers, donating more than 1,000 hours of service in 2011. Extending her impact on the program, she has made arrangements through her estate to establish an endowed professorship. The Y. Sherry Sheng and Spike Wadsworth Endowment Fund will provide a stable stream of income to support the Master Gardener director in perpetuity.

"This planned gift represents a huge investment in the future," said Gail Langellotto, coordinator of the Master Gardener program. "It virtually guarantees our program’s continued growth and development. Oregon State is already a step up in that most Master Gardener state programs don’t have a full-time coordinator. But having an endowed professorship will position OSU as one of the premier urban and community horticulture extension programs in the nation."

Over the last decade Sheng has seen enormous growth in community interest in gardening. The Master Gardener program, she said, is in the right position to meet that need.

"Eating healthily and eating local are constantly in the news and that leads people to the idea of growing edibles in their backyard," she said. "The challenge is that you may have the motivation and enthusiasm but not know how, and learning by trial and error can be really frustrating."

Sheng helped to develop the Master Gardener’s 10-Minute University program which reached more than 1,800 people last year.

"We offer very practical information people can use right away," she said. "Classes and handouts are based on current science, delivered in bite-size pieces."

She hopes that her estate gift will provide a solid financial foundation that allows the Master Gardener program to continue to attract leaders who are excellent educators and administrators as well as scientists.

The gift is especially welcome considering the financial stresses OSU Extension programs have faced in recent years – at the same time demand for services is increasing, said Scott Reed, OSU vice provost for Outreach and Engagement and director of OSU Extension.

"We have Master Gardener programs in 30 Oregon counties, and everywhere we’re seeing a spike in interest," Reed said. "More people want to be volunteers but it’s hard to fund the staff positions that keep the program going. We’re deeply grateful to Sherry and Spike for ensuring that we’ll always have strong leadership at the statewide level."

Last year Master Gardener volunteers in Oregon made more than 200,000 public contacts via plant clinics, public gardening classes, demonstration days and other activities, Langellotto said. Their donated hours were the equivalent of more than 85 full-time staff, she said. They also contributed more than 10,000 pounds of fresh produce, harvested from Master Gardener-managed community and demonstration gardens, to local food banks and food pantries, she added.

Friends of the Master Gardener program will celebrate the planned gift at the program’s 29th annual Mini College at Willamette University in Salem July 25-28.

The commitment is part of The Campaign for OSU, the university’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign. Guided by OSU’s strategic plan, the campaign has raised more than $840 million of its $1 billion goal to provide opportunities for students, strengthen Oregon communities and conduct research that changes the world.

Author: Michelle Williams