By Keysha Drexel
Before he moved from Boston to Birmingham almost three years ago, Robert MacArthur saw firsthand the difference one person can make in the life of a struggling child.
And now that he is on the junior board at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, the 26-year-old said he’s using that firsthand experience to try to give back to students in his new community.
A native of Maryland, MacArthur got involved with a group called Minds Matter in Boston that pairs up high-achieving, low-income students with young professionals who guide them through the process of getting into and paying for college.
“Whether it was the program I volunteered with in Boston or the work the junior board does here with The Gardens, the goal is the same,” MacArthur said. “It’s about people who have had opportunities giving those kind of opportunities to others.”
The Gardens has given more than 10,000 schoolchildren opportunities to learn through free, science curriculum-based field trips each year, MacArthur said.
“An enormous portion of The Gardens’ operating budget goes toward educating the same kind of kids that I was working with in Boston,” MacArthur said. “The Gardens gives a learning opportunity to urban kids who may have never really had the chance to just walk around in nature.”
The Gardens’ education programs are important, MacArthur said, because they provide hands-on, up-close encounters with the more than 12,000 different kinds of plants living in the collection in more than 25 different garden areas.
Schoolchildren visiting The Gardens on field trips also have a chance to see more than 30 original outdoor sculptures and explore miles of serene paths, MacArthur said.
“They learn about biology and botany and other scientific concepts, and it’s the kind of learning that might stick with them more,” he said.
MacArthur said the field trips allow a segment of the population to enjoy what others might take for granted.
“I think the whole mission is not just to have a pretty place for people to dink around on Sundays. It’s not just a place for the rich people who can drive there anytime they want. The Gardens are for everyone,” he said.
MacArthur, who works at Forager Capital Management in Crestline, said he got involved with The Gardens’ junior board at the suggestion of Henry Ray of Ray & Poynor Properties in Mountain Brook.
“When I first moved down here from Boston, I was looking for a way to meet people and get involved in the community, and I was introduced to Henry Ray,” MacArthur said. “He was involved in the big board at The Gardens, and he suggested I look into joining the junior board.”
MacArthur said he’s enjoying serving on The Gardens’ junior board and meeting like-minded people who want to give back to the community.
“You meet people you’d otherwise never meet, and what most people don’t really factor in about volunteering their time to help out is that it is fun,” he said. “The most mundane thing I’ve done on the junior board at The Gardens was spending an evening making goodie bags for an event, and even that was great fun because I was in there with 10 other people joking and laughing. Plus, I knew we were doing something worthwhile.”
And while MacArthur is enjoying helping out in his new community, he hasn’t forgotten the student he worked with in Boston in the Minds Matter program.
“I met with her every week for three years when she was in high school and helped her decide what classes to take and guided her through applying to college,” MacArthur said. “Now, she’s an accounting major at a private school on a full scholarship, and she’s going to have a great life.”
MacArthur said he still advises his former charge from the Minds Matter program.
“I still keep in touch with her and talk to her every semester about what classes to take now that she’s in college,” he said. “It’s the kind of support and guidance that the people in my social circle growing up, and a lot of people, take for granted. For a lot of kids, they are the first ones in their families to even try to go to college, and they don’t really understand the process.”
MacArthur said he advises other young people who would like to get involved in community service not to be put off by junior board cycles and other formalities.
“I joined (The Gardens’ junior board) in March, which was nine months away from the next membership cycle. I couldn’t be a full member until the new membership cycle started, but that didn’t stop me from being able to jump in and lend a hand,” he said.
But no matter what organization young people decide to lend their time and talents to, MacArthur said he can’t stress enough the importance of volunteering.
“As young professionals, we need to really commit to our community and do something besides focus on our careers,” he said. “There are so many organizations and so many people who are just waiting for someone to step in and say they are willing to help.”