In December of 2013, Kim Lepore was busy finalizing her studies with the IFAS Florida Master Gardener program. At a tabling event focused on connecting burgeoning master gardeners with local service sites, she was introduced to Leah Diehl, Director of the Therapeutic Horticulture Program at Wilmot Gardens. “I just immediately took to her and what they were doing,” Lepore recalled of this initial meeting. As she learned of what the program had to offer, Lepore’s intrigue grew and in the spring of 2014, she began volunteering. “I was excited about it because I have always believed that nature heals,” Lepore said. Since that time, Lepore has assisted with virtually every population group in the Therapeutic Horticulture Program. Not only does she volunteer within the program, but also stays busy supporting Wilmot Gardens via fundraisers, such as plant sales, and special events, such as the recent Chapman Healing Garden dedication ceremony. Lepore’s unwavering support has undoubtedly aided in the growth and sustainability of both the programs and the gardens. “Kim is willing to help in any way we need her, whether it is with a participant, a plant, an organizational task, or a special occasion. Her flexibility is so valuable,” Diehl said.
Born and raised in rural Maryland, Lepore tested in the 90th percentile of a USDA recruitment program for high school graduates and was placed in a position as a plant variety protection clerk. Her responsibilities included plant tagging and card categorization of plant varieties discovered in the Amazon rainforest. “I knew right then and there that plants were my thing and then I’ve evolved from there,” Lepore reminisced of her first job. After further testing and interviewing, her position at the USDA led to another opportunity with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center. “Back in the day, if you can imagine, they had no women in professional series, so they had to groom you,” recollected Lepore, who was among 50 women that were selected to participate in NASA’s Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) Technical Excellence Program (STEP). She thrived in the program, “To me it was an ideal program. They knew they were growing a workforce.” Lepore spent nearly three decades serving as a federal civil servant, initially as contracting officer and then as a program manager, before retiring from Washington, DC to Gainesville in 2010.
Lepore’s career kept her busy, both while at home and during travels abroad, yet she always found time to maintain her connection with nature. Since retiring, she has had the opportunity to more fully embrace this passion and now serves as an active member of the Alachua County Master Gardener program. She continues to expand her knowledge by regularly attending educational events to learn more about the gardening scene in Alachua County and surrounding communities. “It wasn’t until I retired that I had time, for example, to become a master gardener and get more involved. I have raised beds now and plant for wildlife,” she said of her most recent endeavors. Over the last decade, Lepore has grown to appreciate a more natural native landscaping aesthetic that serves the pollinators and she relishes spending time in her backyard watching the wildlife.
Presently off for the summer break, Lepore will resume her volunteering at the greenhouse in the fall. Most recently, she has been assisting with the Horticulture and Job Skills Training Program for people with Autism Spectrum and Related Disorders (ASD) offered by Wilmot Gardens. The principal goal of this program is to enhance the likelihood of young adults with ASD to secure full-time, paid employment that will eventually lead to a successful transition to independent living. During sessions, Lepore aids Diehl in guiding participants through activities that encourage the exploration of horticulture through propagating and nurturing plants. “Kim has been a fantastic volunteer over the years. I love that she is always wanting to learn new things about the people we work with and the issues they face,” said Diehl. Lepore finds the ASD group the most challenging and interesting of all the populations she has worked with in the Therapeutic Horticulture Program. “It’s helping me to grow as a person, to just become more empathetic,” said Lepore of her recent experiences with this group. “It’s a challenge to me to help them, not to do for them, but to give them the tools they can use to feel empowered. I’ve gained a sensitivity.”