Eunita Rushing feels at home when she's near plants, so perhaps it's no surprise that since 1999 she has been the enthusiastic president of the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance, which works in partnership with the Chicago Park District to raise funds and awareness for educational and public programs for the conservatory, located on the city's West Side.
"There are so many Chicagoans who don't know that the place exists, and it's been here over 100 years," Rushing says.
The conservatory's 4-1/2 acres of exterior and interior gardens (there are eight display houses) offer surprises for everybody, Rushing included: "No matter where you turn, there is something fascinating," she says.
With an estimated 180,000 visitors in 2012, Rushing says her goal for 2013 is to get more people to enjoy the conservatory, designed by legendary landscape architect Jens Jensen and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Born and raised in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, Rushing has a 22-year-old daughter, Z'Dia Reid. The following is an edited version of our conversation at the conservatory.
Q: You started gardening as a graduate student at Loyola University?
A: I remember my first studio apartment. I had more plants than anything in that apartment and I loved it. People thought I was crazy because I talked to them and I just nurtured them, and they were really lively and really beautiful.
Q: Garfield Park Conservatory was distinctive from the start.
A: When Jens Jensen designed this conservatory, he didn't design it in the Victorian style; he designed it to resemble haystacks, which were a part of the Midwestern landscape. Then he took plants out of the pots and off the shelf and put them in the ground. He was cutting edge for his time.
Q: You believe that spending time at the conservatory can have a positive effect.
A: Oh, yes, especially with the younger people. There was a young man who took a class here; he was part of our Green Teens program and … he said, "I'm going to surprise my mother, and I'm going to build her a garden." You can open their eyes and give them experiences that they've never had before, and I feel like that's having an impact.
Q: Talk about the costly damage the conservatory suffered during the 2011 hailstorm.
A: It was total devastation and exhaustion, but as we began the cleanup process … there was such an outpouring from the public with people who were concerned and who wanted to send money, we all got a real shot in the arm. We were all recommitted at a higher level than ever before. And when we were cleaning up the broken glass, we found all this original stonework that you can see now.
Q: What kind of activities are planned for 2013?
A: We have a program year-round called Morning Glories; that's our family preschool program on Mondays in the children's garden. And then this summer, our city backyard garden, which is where people can come and learn how to garden, will be in full swing. We plan to do plays and have concerts this summer, just as we did last summer.
Q: Did you grow up in a big family?
A: I'm the oldest of nine girls. My parents migrated here 65 or so years ago, and my mom still lives in the same house. (My family) had one address since they came to Chicago. Isn't that cool? We've seen a lot of changes in the neighborhood, but it's been so fabulous to have that family home.
Q: You say your helping others was an example set by your parents, Nelson and Ora.
A: My parents were out there knocking on doors when there were elections. They were very community-minded. So I felt that I needed to do something where I helped people and worked with people.
Q: What did you want to be when you were 13?
A: I think I was begging my mom to let me be a Freedom Rider (civil rights activists who traveled to the South to fight segregation). And she refused. And a little later I wanted to join the Army because they had a slogan (on a television ad), "join the Army and see the world," and I wanted to see the world. I was probably about 16 then. She said "no" to that too.
Q: Have you seen the world?
A: I've seen parts of it, but I'm not done yet.
Q: What's the best advice you ever received?
A: Ronne Hartfield, who hired me at Urban Gateways, the job I had before I came here, told me, "Eunita, whenever people make requests of you, never say, 'Yes.' Just say, 'Give me a day to think about it.' " It's really important. I see (women) extending themselves constantly because … we try to do it all. We have such a hard time saying "no," and there are times when "no" is appropriate.
Q: What's the best part of your job?
A: (Rushing points to a toddler who is smiling as he walks past.) You know, research tells us when you start with children very young, engaging them with nature, (they're) … more likely to be stewards of the planet as they become adults. And that is a very important part of our work.
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