By Carly Kwiecien
Coming home for summer vacation after being away at college is always hard. Things change when you’re gone, and you come back to piece it all back together and find your place again. This summer, I interned at Friendship Botanic Gardens, which is where I found beauty, peace and serenity after a hectic school year. It began as just a place of work, but soon transformed into a place I now call home. The coworkers and volunteers I worked closely with soon became my second family.
For the past few months, I wore several different hats. It was a diverse internship for me; I was graciously given the freedom to spread my wings and become successful in a variety of specialties.
I took on several writing projects featuring board members and events at the Gardens. Writing is my passion, and it was easy for me to write about a place that felt so magical to me. Throughout my time at the Gardens, I learned about its rich history and legacy in Michigan City. I taught this mine of information to Garden guests on multiple cart tours through the grounds.
I continuously felt the energy and passion that Board Members, volunteers and staff members had for the Gardens. Their optimism invigorated me to give 110 percent of myself, helping it grow in popularity, and by making guests who visited feel welcome and invited to share this energy and excitement, too.
There were several opportunities for me to grow both personally and professionally. I worked directly with the public while cabin hosting and working events and weddings.
In the welcome cabin, I greeted guests who were at the Gardens to walk, jog or be immersed in its natural beauty. My favorite part was being able to be a part of their experiences. Some people who passed through had never been to a botanic garden, while others had been visiting Friendship Botanic Gardens for decades. I enjoyed informing them of our legacy, along with our hopes of expansion and growth in the near future.
I was also trusted to be a member of committees for events. For example, I was on the committee for our annual fundraising gala, where we discussed what items would be donated for our auctions, who would speak, where volunteers would be placed throughout the evening and what needed to be done in preparation for our big event. This experience was beneficial to my education because I was able to learn about different aspects of a nonprofit and what it took to plan and coordinate an event.
I also attended several Garden events, ranging from family-friendly events such as Bug Safari, Butterfly Bonanza, and Taste and Tribute to more formal gatherings like Gatsby in the Gardens. I helped out wherever I was needed and was willing to take on whatever tasks that would help the events move smoother.
On other weekends where there weren’t events, I had the pleasure of assisting with weddings. The Gardens are a major destination spot for both wedding ceremonies and receptions, hosting anywhere from 55 to 60 weddings each year. I helped vendors and DJs set up and take down equipment and drove guests to and from the venues scattered throughout the Gardens. I found it magical being a part of someone’s special day, no matter the size or significance of the role I played.
It has been a truly rewarding summer being a part of a team that has mentored me and allowed me to grow in places I didn’t even know I could. Friendship Botanic Gardens is a place for peace and prayer and has been tucked away off of Highway 12 for decades. In the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, it was place for concerts, festivals and social gatherings, and we are trying to bring it back to its magnificence.
In the past four years, the Board of Directors, along with its President, John Leinweber, have donated so much effort, time, energy and money to make it thrive.
In order for the Gardens to be put on the map again, the need for volunteers and interns is constant. There is something here for everyone, no matter demographic, skill level or interest. It is my wish to see others have the same passion and drive for success for this place as I have for it.
Thank you to those who have contributed to my summer at the Gardens and to those who continue to see its potential.
By Carly Kwiecien
Stephanie Graham, fun-loving mother of two, bus driver and wedding coordinator, is always on the go. Whether she’s running around to support her children’s extracurricular events or attending weddings at the Gardens, she is always wearing a warm and inviting smile on her face.
Above everything, she takes pride in being a mother to her 14-year old son and 7-year-old daughter.
Her son, Honor Roll student and four-sport athlete, will be starting high school this year. Her daughter models in Chicago, in addition to being a gymnast and taking wrestling and taekwondo classes.
“They’re my everything,” Graham said. “Being a mom is my favorite thing and I love supporting them in all they do.”
During the school year, Graham works as a bus driver for the La Porte Community School Corporation.
“I’ve truly had the pleasure of getting the best bus route,” Graham said. “When I started this route, the kids were in elementary school and now this year, they’re beginning their first year of high school. It’s such a unique job because unlike a teacher where they have different students each year, I get to have the same kids year after year. Summer isn’t that long, but on the first day of school, it’s great to see how much they’ve changed and grown. I absolutely love it.”
From May 1 through the latter part of October, Graham works as the wedding coordinator for Friendship Botanic Gardens. It has been the perfect fit for her, as she genuinely enjoys putting those around her first.
“I love making someone’s big day absolutely perfect by making it everything they want it to be,” Graham said.
Graham plans, books and manages about 50 weddings at the Gardens each wedding season. This year, she coordinated 55 weddings.
With over 100 weddings under her belt, she is expecting next year to be an even more successful wedding season at the Gardens.
“Last season, we had 45 weddings booked and this year, we have ten more than that,” Graham said. “I want that number to keep increasing; I wish we had more weekends and shorter winters so we could book more.”
Ironically, the first time Graham came to the Gardens was years ago when she came to attend her brother-in-law’s wedding.
“I was disappointed in the fact that my husband and I had an outdoor ceremony and didn’t know about this place at the time of our wedding,” Graham said. “If I would’ve know, we definitely would’ve gotten married there instead.”
Friendship Botanic Gardens offers couples with unique and beautiful outdoor settings and can accommodate small and intimate wedding ceremonies, as well as wedding ceremonies with up to 600 guests. While most weddings take place under the Symphony Garden canopy, the ethnic gardens and the gazebo on the peninsula on Lake Lucerne are also popular locations for ceremonies and receptions.
“The Bridal Cabin is one of the greatest things we have to offer to our brides,” Graham said. “It’s a great place for brides and their bridesmaids to get ready before the ceremony. I also love that we use people movers to transport guests to and from the venues. It’s funny when people get on my golf cart, I always say, ‘You didn’t know you were going to go on a golf cart ride today, did you?’ It’s fun and people enjoy it, and it comes incredibly handy for our guests that have mobility issues.”
Each wedding party brings a different style and flare to the Gardens, and Graham gets to be a part of each one.
“We had a reception last season that was exactly what I would have wanted,” Graham said. “It was a real fun-feel reception that had different food trucks, a taco bar and yard games. Everything was fun and super relaxed, and it felt more like going to an event than a reception for a wedding.”
Graham has ideas for future weddings to come in the upcoming seasons.
“I’m excited about our new Horizon Bank Labyrinth Garden, and it’s on my bucket list to get a bridal party in there with a drone and have aerial shots taken of them,” Graham said. “Right now it needs to grow a bit and get a little fuller but once it does, it will be a great photo opportunity.”
She also has big hopes for a new building, which will allow individuals with the chance to book weddings year-round.
“My favorite part of the Gardens is honestly everything,” Graham said. “I want everyone to experience it.”
Graham spends her free time running trails and, in the winter, snowshoeing.
“I also love going to the beach to listen to my audiobooks and hunt for beach glass and cool rocks,” Graham said. “That’s my thing. Beyond that, I make jewelry and paint the rocks that I find at the beach.”