Engaging Personality

Bartram's Garden volunteer Mary Armstrong says the historic site has "something for everybody." | Photo by Dan Murphy

Mary Armstrong expands Bartram's Garden network

Longtime Bartram’s Garden volunteer Mary Armstrong says she especially loves engaging visitors from the Southwest Philadelphia neighborhoods that surround the garden. “I like the fact that you can get people who just stumble in with their bikes, start talking to them, engaging them,” she says. “It’s a place of refuge. It’s important to keep it here—not just as a piece of history, but as a place for people to go.”

Since volunteering in 2009 at Bartram’s as a community ambassador, Armstrong has inspired many to become members of the 45-acre urban oasis and former home to one of America’s first botanists, John Bartram.

“Mary began by lending a hand at our monthly clean-ups, but she quickly came into her own as one of our most passionate and articulate community ambassadors,” emails Kim Massare, communications manager at Bartram’s Garden. “She has a special knack for expanding our network of members and her dedication over the years has been a true gift.”

Armstrong, a former WXPN DJ, has written about music for the Philadelphia City Paper, and is also an active member of Philadelphia’s folk music scene and volunteers at several West Philadelphia nonprofits, including UC Green and The Woodlands.

Armstrong regularly volunteers during Bartram’s special events, urging visitors to support the garden by becoming members. She also spurred Bartram’s to offer a volunteer-your-membership option so visitors without money to spare could still be full members of the community. Bartram’s now offers volunteers who dedicate at least 10 hours of service per year a complimentary membership at the Gardener level, which includes free tours of the historic home, access to educational programs and members-only events, a 10 percent discount to the plant and garden shops, and reciprocal admissions to other American Horticultural Society gardens.

Alison McDowell, Bartram’s membership coordinator, estimates that Armstrong has inspired dozens of new members to join. “She’s never met a stranger,” McDowell says. “Mary is very talented in looking at people and telling what they might be interested in in the garden, and then catering the benefits [of membership] to that.”

After learning that one young visitor from Ohio had a special interest in archaeology, Armstrong shared that a recent archaeological dig on the site turned up remnants of a 5,000-year old village. She urged him to ask Joel Fry, Bartram’s curator, for a tour of the dig site, and sent him to check out the historic stone apple press set into the riverbank.

“We’ve got something for everybody,” she says. “There’s a lot of history that has been continuously bubbling up here. If you come around and do some work here, you can claim it, too. You help to make sure that it survives.”