She’s not from Harlem, but Gay Austin is becoming quite the globetrotter.
Since being installed as president of the National Garden Club, she has traveled or will travel in the coming months to the Pacific Northwest, Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, India and New Zealand.
Even closer to home, she plans to plans to visit all 50 states during her term.
She sees herself not just as the latest leader of the National Garden Club, but an ambassador for her home state.
“I like to think that the people I meet, everywhere I go, will think better of Mississippi and come see what we have to offer,” Austin told the McComb Lions Club on Tuesday.
She didn’t know she launched herself on a trajectory to lead the 148-year-old national organization when she accepted an invitation to join the McComb Garden Club some 30 years ago.
Her involvement gradually grew from local programs to regional, state and national issues as she accepted offices or committee appointments at the various levels of Garden Club work.
Eventually, Austin was asked to serve on the national board, and she volunteered to chair the committee that organized the national convention for the next year, a convention that was held in Biloxi. She later served as state garden clubs president, and was required to chair committees governing finance and audit, among others, before ascending to the national presidency.
“I see the Nation Garden Club in much more of a business sense now,” Austin said.
The organization has a number of longstanding projects and advocacy issues in its portfolio, including Blue Star and Gold Star memorial markers. Blue Star markers honor the nation’s armed forces. Gold Star markers honor military members killed in the nation’s service.
The project became international this year with the erecting of a marker on the beaches of Normandy in France, during observances of the 75th anniversary of World War II’s D-Day.
Garden clubs may offer training sessions on subjects from everyday gardening to environmental protection. Garden Club of Mississippi has a longtime association with Keep Mississippi Beautiful and its litter prevention efforts, as well.
The local, state and national organizations have education initiatives such as college scholarships for students studying horticulture or in environmental studies; poetry and essay contests, in which Kiley Gazzo of Summit won first place in the state in the fall; and Smokey the Bear and Woodsy Owl poster contests.
A major concern for the National Garden Club and its member organizations is participation. Austin said member volunteers had declined to a low of 165,000 nationwide in 2017, but 34 of the state and territory members had reported small increases in 2018.
Part of improving participation is capturing youth or younger adults and meeting them where they are.
“One thing we’re looking at is meeting times,” Austin said. “A lot of people may not come back out at night after they get home. So we’re looking at having meetings before work, or at lunch time, whenever its convenient.
“We’re also changing some of our programs. If we have a program about a Washington botanical garden, they may not be into that. Have a program on growing vegetables in your back yard, they’re interested.”
The National Garden Club has kept participation affordable for many years, with dues of just $1 per year, and that’s something Austin doesn’t see changing anytime soon.
Guiding the organization forward is keeping an already busy and involved woman busier than ever, but Austin is meeting her challenges grace and good humor.
“I need a nine-day week, and a 30-hour day,” she said. “I enjoy what I do, and I’m glad to travel and share what we’re doing. I just try to do what I can do and stay positive.”