Volunteer Spotlight: Kathleen Violet Grey

Kathleen & MichaelIn 2014, Kathleen Violet Grey and her husband, Michael Hitchcock, were visiting the UF Health Cancer Center for an appointment when they noticed an advertisement for a cancer patient program in the Therapeutic Horticulture Program at Wilmot Gardens. Grey, who was originally diagnosed with cancer in 2010, was intrigued. Having seen the Wilmot Gardens’ greenhouse located just north of the medical facility during their visits, they decided to inquire further. “What piqued my interest was that I drove past the greenhouse every time I went to treatment, and I would see people there working and I would say to Michael that I would love to work in there and learn about a greenhouse,” said Grey. “When I saw the sign for the program, I thought to myself ‘This is perfect.’ I had wished for it.”

Shortly thereafter, in the fall of 2014, Grey began attending the cancer group of the therapeutic horticulture program. Hitchcock also attends most days since the program encourages participation from caregivers. Both Grey and Hitchcock, who moved to Gainesville in 2012, feel that involvement in the program has helped not only with her treatment, but also with her transition to a new community and overall morale. “It was a very difficult and interesting transition to a small town like Gainesville,” said Grey, who had previously resided in Los Angeles for over 45 years. For Hitchcock, who grew up in Florida and received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida, it was an easier change. Ultimately, they selected Gainesville because Hitchcock has family in the area and for the city’s proximity to a cancer treatment facility, the UF Health Cancer Center. “When we first moved back to Florida, in between Kathleen’s chemo, she had long periods of down time that added to her malaise and didn’t help her mental attitude,” said Hitchcock. “It really helps, I think more than anything else, with her attitude,” he said of the therapeutic horticulture program. “Her attitude, I believe fully, is at least 50% or more of her being well.”

Grey, who grew up in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, became interested in gardening at a very young age under the guidance of her grandmother, an immigrant from a farm in Scotland. Grey fondly recalls the grapes growing on an arbor in her grandmother’s yard and the lessons she learned during their time together. She has carried this passion for gardening with her as a hobby throughout her life and has always had a backyard garden when space permitted. Before moving to Florida, at her home in Los Angeles, Grey grew both edibles and ornamentals. She misses the year-round gardening conditions for plants such as bougainvillea, jasmine, and trumpets, but is getting acclimated to Florida.

In 1970, Grey was awarded a Bachelor of Science dual-degree from the University of Miami in the fields of biology and chemistry. With the hopes of becoming a doctor, she applied to medical schools and was accepted on a waiting list at the University of California Los Angeles, which took her across the country in 1971. While awaiting potential enrollment at UCLA, she took a part-time position at Disney Studios as a file clerk. She found herself quickly being promoted within the company and fell in love with the industry. Eventually she was promoted to an assistant casting director for the studio and began work on the 1990’s version of Disney’s Mousketeers television program. During her time with the program, she took part in casting now famous actors like Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and Ryan Gosling. Grey credits her involvement with the show for launching her career. Over her 45-year career in Hollywood, she worked as a casting director, casting supervisor, or talent coordinator for Disney Studios, Warner Brothers, and Universal Studios. Although she got her start in television, she spent most of her career in film.

One of the most difficult aspects of their relocation was leaving behind the friendships and support system Grey had built during her time in Los Angeles, which she still refers to as home. Her involvement in the therapeutic horticulture program has helped to lessen this blow. “It changed my life,” said Grey of the program. Grey credits Leah Diehl, the director of the therapeutic horticulture program, for much of the change and improvement she has seen in her life. Diehl recommended and encouraged her to become involved with the Florida Master Gardener Program, which has helped Grey to meet many people from the local community with common interests. “Kathleen found friends with similar likes and dislikes, and that all helps too,” said Hitchcock.

In 2016, Grey graduated from the Florida Master Gardener Program and now enjoys volunteering in the community. She decided to take the training to become a volunteer in the therapeutic horticulture program, which she completed just before the start of the fall 2017 semester. “I wanted to do it because I felt like I should give something back and be more active,” said Grey, who has volunteered with the veteran’s program for two semesters thus far. “Every one of them is unique and interesting, and what they did was incredible,” she said of the Veteran’s in the program, whom she enjoys making smile. Grey looks forward to volunteering with other population groups in the future and is hopeful for the opportunity to work with the addictions group.

Earlier this year, Grey also began teaching herb classes and volunteering one to two days per week at the University of Florida Herbarium at the Florida Museum of Natural History. She assists with mounting of botanical specimens and is very passionate about the project. “It’s not repetitive, because we get plants from all over the world, and I get to learn about the plants and when I know one it is amazing,” said Grey, who has accumulated over 200 volunteer hours already this year. “It is very therapeutic work.”

Grey also recently became a member of the advisory board for the Family and Consumer Sciences program offered through the extension office. She is excited to become more involved and continue to expand the ways she can give back to the community.

Grey continues to attend the weekly cancer group sessions of the therapeutic horticulture program and enjoys the program activities and the community of friendships she has built. “Leah always brings in new things to do. Everybody loved the recent releasing of lady bugs,” said Grey.

It would appear that life in Gainesville seems to be growing on Grey. “We owe it all to Wilmot (Gardens) and the different things that she has been doing at the extension office and the herbarium. She is busy; she has a reason and a purpose again. That was what was really lacking in her daily routines,” said Hitchcock. “When in treatment she looks forward to getting back to her work.”

Bailey A. Hillman
Business Manager, Wilmot Gardens, College of Medicine