Steve Schulz is pretty sure his selection as the Santa Ynez Valley’s 2019 Education Volunteer of the Year is a hoax pulled off by buddies to get back at him for some former trespass. In fact, the Valley native is being honored for his countless hours connecting area youth with the peace, beauty and dirty work of gardening.
“Steve embodies the spirit of the Valley: generous and kind to all and beneath unending amounts of grit, energy and determination,” wrote Puck Erickson Lohnas in his nomination.
Schulz, who was raised in Solvang, was living in Southern California when he was shot during a carjacking and left a paraplegic in 1999. He moved back to the Valley shortly thereafter, and has since become invaluable to the volunteer community here.
“His active presence is a reminder that Americans with disabilities want and can participate fully in giving back to their communities,” the nomination stated.
Schulz’s interest in volunteering was first sparked by an article in the newspaper calling for docents at Sedgwick Reserve. There, he led hikes and got involved in Kids in Nature, a partnership between the reserve and UCSB’s Museum of Systematics and Ecology (MSE), before finding his way to Santa Ynez Valley Botanical Garden.
“I’m a professional gardener, and I can’t live if I don’t have dirt under my fingernails,” Schulz said.
In the garden, he has volunteered hours of ongoing garden maintenance, sprinkler adjustments, plantings as well as coaching for volunteers who take part in his Second Saturdays Maintenance Group.
“I get to play in the dirt, planting and trimming, collecting seeds and spreading them for the next year. I still do design and consulting, but I need more work. I need to stay busy and active,” Schulz said.
As a garden representative, he provides hands-on lessons for school-age students in a variety of programs.
“With a sly sense of humor, he disarms teenagers holding a shovel for the first time and charms the preschoolers from Acorn School and students who visit the Garden through Nature Track Program,” the nominator wrote.
Schulz is also a volunteer with Santa Ynez Natural History Society, laid out and graded the garden’s secondary trail system with the help of fellow garden volunteer Jim Pugh, established the Little Village Foundation, and helped Hidden Wings Foundation participants design and install an herb garden at Mission Santa Ynez.
He has catalogued trees on the Dunn School campus with students, laying the foundation for their new campus arboretum project. And he is a regular contributor to the botanical garden’s newsletter “Flora and Fauna” where his writing fills pages with entertaining articles on the varied uses and behavior of local plants.
As a child, Schulz could be found digging in his family’s kitchen garden. Though these days he has advanced to designing, planting and maintaining beautiful outdoor spaces featuring native plants, he gets a special kick out of sharing the garden with youngsters.
“I enjoy working with the kids. Most of them have never done anything with gardening. It’s always fun to see them ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over worms and sow bugs,” Schulz said.
They are also most accepting of his wheelchair.
“The little kids will ask questions about the chair, but for the most part, they just accept it. The kids see that people in chairs are capable of doing more than they thought. It’s not really a disability. The chair is an advantage because it gets people out of the house,” Schulz said.
He particularly enjoys volunteering with small organizations which give its volunteers the opportunity to spread their wings, and says there’s no excuse not to volunteer.
“There’s always time to do the things you want to do,” Schulz said.