When Suann Leighow was named Coordinator of the Year in 2019 for the Columbia County master gardener program, she figured the honor would be tough to beat.
On Aug. 12, however, Leighow did just that when she was named Outstanding Volunteer Coordinator for the Northeast region in the David Gibby Search for Excellence Awards.
The awards are issued every two years in conjunction with the International Master Gardener Conference, which is being held virtually this year Sept. 12-17.
When Leighow was asked to come to the Columbia County Ag Services Building on Aug. 12, she had no idea what was in store.
“It was a total surprise,” Leighow said. “I was shocked then, and I still am. It’s a huge honor.”
The award program is named for the founder of the master gardener program, and it recognizes volunteer work by Extension master gardeners and volunteer coordinators in the United States, Canada and South Korea.
Penn State’s master gardener programs in Erie, Berks and Centre counties also received Gibby Awards this year.
Leighow, of Numidia, became a master gardener in 1995 and has served as a volunteer leader for Columbia County since 2016.
Later she was asked to lead the programs in Montour and Northumberland counties, essentially overseeing three separate county programs at the same time.
One of Leighow’s goals with the county programs was to increase the number of volunteers and master gardeners, and so far it’s working.
Currently there are seven master gardeners in Montour County, nine in Northumberland and 33 in Columbia, where the program has been around the longest.
Still, Leighow is hesitant to take credit for the success of the county programs.
“It’s really a team effort with area coordinators, and we all accomplish so much working together,” she said.
In 2019 and 2020 alone, Leighow volunteered more than 300 hours for the master gardener program.
The amount of time Leighow dedicates to the program is especially impressive because she works full time, as a groundskeeper and maintenance worker at Geisinger Medical Center.
“It’s really a joy to be doing this and I like seeing new master gardeners come in, each with their own niche, and it’s fun working with the public,” she said. “If it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
Making a Difference
Leighow also cherishes the opportunity to make a difference as a master gardener. One of the duties of a coordinator is to disseminate information as it comes from Penn State Extension, and sometimes the task is critical to protecting not only gardens, but also the natural landscape.
When emerald ash borer surfaced in Pennsylvania in 2007, Leighow said not many people were initially concerned about the invasive insect. That attitude changed when ash trees started dying.
That situation served as a lesson to be proactive when such threats emerge, and Leighow said a different approach was taken when the spotted lanternfly became an issue in the state.
“Extension and the master gardener program helped get the word out, so a lot of people knew what it was and knew what to look for,” she said. “In the last four weeks, we’ve seen an increase in lanternfly reports from Columbia County. That’s a good thing from the standpoint that people are being vigilant about this.”
Even though Leighow has been involved with the program for 26 years and has now earned one of the top awards given to volunteer coordinators, she said she still hasn’t stopped learning. It has helped in her job as a groundskeeper as well.
“When there’s a new threat or something I don’t know, I can always get an answer from another master gardener. There’s an expert in everything,” she said.
While overseeing master gardeners in three counties is a major commitment, Leighow doesn’t plan to trim any of her duties unless the counties grow to the point where their programs are self-sustaining.
The time that Leighow dedicates to the program hasn’t gone unnoticed on the local level. In addition to the Search for Excellence Award, Leighow was presented with a resolution from the Montour County commissioners recognizing her work.
“It’s gratifying to know the commissioners think so much of this program,” Leighow said. “I’m grateful for their support and very humbled to receive the Search for Excellence Award. I still can’t believe it.”
Other Gibby Award recipients from the Northeast include Virginia’s master gardener programs in Norfolk, the Northern Shenandoah Valley and Green Spring Gardens; the Rutgers Master Gardener Program of Morris County, New Jersey; and the Talbot County master gardener volunteers in Maryland.