Victoria Birchem learned at a young age to “bloom where you are planted,” seizing her opportunities through scouting and school.
Her contributions to the O’Fallon Garden Club and her community have now been recognized with a Governor’s Hometown Award, which was bestowed in November, but her road sign was recently delivered.
“She helped get us more organized, and it won her an award,” said Harlan Gerrish, longtime Garden Club board member, during the recent sign presentation.
Working with the strictly volunteer organization on ways to improve the Community Garden was an easy choice in 2017, she said.
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“I really appreciate all the work that the Garden Club does, not only to make O’Fallon beautiful, but also to educate the community about gardening and the importance of preserving the local ecosystem,” she said.
“The Garden Club also donates a ton and a half of fresh fruits and vegetables to the local food pantry each year, in addition to the delicious honey the apiary produces. I really hope that the community continues to take advantage of all the work that the Garden Club does,” she said.
In Illinois, the annual Governor’s Hometown Awards program gives formal recognition to communities that contributed to its quality of life through projects with strong volunteer support, that met a need, and made a definitive impact.
The Serve Illinois Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service presented 23 localities with honors last fall.
Birchem was recognized with an honorable mention in the category of Environmental Stewardship 2018 for partnering with the O’Fallon Garden Club to help them with several projects.
Entitled “Nomenclature for Nature,” she worked with then-club president Sterling Garnto and board to create a catalog/database of the garden plants and species to help with the management of the community garden. Garnto helped identify what was in the garden and Treasurer Charlie Pitts helped with financial advising.
Birchem was able to create a system of identifying, recording, and labeling the plant species in the community garden. She organized it in a digital spreadsheet, Gerrish said, then updated information in a binder.
Trying to find the plants in the garden was harder because labels had faded. So, she undertook updating, creating and maintaining new ones with material that was more durable.
“She researched overall designs and companies, and then installed the new ones. If you see them in the garden today, it adds a nice touch,” Gerrish said.
“They look botanical garden professional. I hope they stand the test of time,” Birchem said.
A secondary goal was the added benefit that the labels would provide new learning opportunities for the community and visitors to the community garden.
She helped coordinate public garden tours and organized a program so that local Girl Scout troops and other groups could tour and learn more about the community garden, located at State and Smiley streets.
Foot traffic and visitors increased to the garden, and her work helped reach a larger audience with the tours.
Current O’Fallon Garden Club President Kimberly Atkins complimented her efforts.
“Victoria’s contribution to the community garden has an educational benefit that supports one of our missions. Not only do the signs provide us with the names of plants, it also helps us identify the plant locations when they are dormant. The signs also add a professional look to the garden,” Atkins said.
Pitts said her help restructuring the tours was invaluable.
“We have received many compliments after the tours, now using her guidelines on how to show kids around. Without her help, we would not have gotten that done,” Pitts said.
Now a sophomore accounting major at Saint Louis University, Birchem undertook the project as a member of Girl Scout Troop 915, which won her the Gold Award, the highest honor a scout can receive. She was an active scout from kindergarten through high school.
As a scout, she liked the programs and the learning programs as she worked on every badge she could.
“They had the traditional ones, like sewing, but they also had more about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” she said. “I just kept with it. I really liked it.”
Like most collaborative community efforts, she did not do the project alone. Besides Garden Club officers and members, she was assisted by Girl Scout Troop Leaders Karlene Hoefener and Penny Pejka, her parents Mary and Bryan, friend Grier Holmes, Garden Club publicity chair Harriet Baker and Bernard Holliday of AAA Quality Engravers.
She plans to continue being active in some way.
“I look to be an assistant leader in the future,” she said.
Why does she want to make a difference?
“Volunteerism has always been important to me, and I think it’s a passion that Girl Scouts has instilled in me throughout my life. After completing my Gold Award, I continue to do service in the St. Louis community as well,” she said.
At SLU, she is a member of XQuizit, an urban dance team. She is a brother in the professional fraternity Delta Sigma Pi, the Beta Sigma chapter.
She also started a non-profit service organization called Movement Exchange, which provides free dance classes to kids all around the city.
She currently lives in a dormitory at school, but O’Fallon is near and dear to her heart. She has lived here, with her parents and her three siblings – Anne, Mary and Andrew. She is the youngest. She credits her parents as role models in helping others.
In high school, she belonged to FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America) and the OTHS Golden Girls dance team.
“I think that groups of people can really come together through service, no matter what the project is. Being a volunteer really gives me a feeling of pride within my community, and it makes me extremely proud to be a part of a city that really emphasizes the importance of the work that volunteers do,” she said.
Mayor Herb Roach said he was grateful for both the Garden Club and Girl Scout efforts.
“We are a fortunate community to have an active garden club. This club not only helps with plants on city property but teaches other how to plant and raise flowers and food,” he said. “Our Girls Scouts have been involved with the Garden Club and have learned the importance of local ecosystems and shared this information with others, and done much more. They are truly deserving of the Governor’s Hometown Award.”