Extension Where You Are
A Heart to Serve
Master Gardener serves others through gardening hobby
Story by Susan Collins-Smith • Photo by Kevin Hudson
After a conversation with a fellow volunteer at St. Dominic’s Hospital in Jackson, John Malanchak decided to follow his heart.
“I’d always wanted to work with special needs individuals,” explains Malanchak, a retired geologist. “But I didn’t know what I could offer them.”
He also had discovered a new love for gardening and became a Master Gardener through the Mississippi State University Extension Service volunteer-certification program. He took his friend’s suggestion and combined his new hobby of gardening with his desire to serve people.
What started out as one test garden at St. Dominic’s Hospital childcare center for 25 3- and 4-year-olds has grown. Malanchak now works with 15 organizations in Hinds, Rankin, and Madison Counties serving children and adults of all abilities. All of the gardens are planted in easily managed salad tables provided by fellow Pine Belt Master Gardeners. (See story on pages 4–5.) Salad tables are shallow, raised beds about waist-high that make gardening convenient for anyone, but especially those who use wheelchairs or walkers with seats.
Groups grow a combination of flowers and vegetables, and Malanchak visits at least one garden each week. But it’s more about the people than anything else.
“I’m not the greatest at gardening, but I like to learn new things,” he says. “Gardening is just a tool for me to help make a difference in people’s lives and my life. I love seeing the joy that these gardens bring other people. That gets me up every day.”
Malanchak also took on a trial garden project for the Extension Service at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum. He is testing different varieties of vegetables that are intended for homeowners.
“I never in a million years thought I’d be a Master Gardener!” he exclaims. “But I really enjoy it. When I stumbled on the Extension Service, I found a great place for learning about all different types of things. I am really impressed with the range of educational topics they offer.”
Malanchak currently serves as president of the Mississippi Master Gardener Association and received the association’s Master Gardener of the Year Award, Outstanding Project of the Year Award, and Outstanding Educational Project of the Year Award for his work with the salad table gardens. He is also a certified Master Naturalist, a designation earned through another Extension education program aimed at teaching people about natural resources conservation.
Kyle Lewis, Extension agent in Hinds County, has worked with Malanchak for several years and regards him as a valuable partner in educating the public.
“John is highly motivated and eager to learn new things, and not just about horticulture,” Lewis says. “He’s been to a few of my row-crop meetings. He’s interested in environmental conservation and serves as a Master Naturalist. He is truly dedicated to his volunteer work and makes a difference.”