Arboretum Donation Inspired By Work of Granddaughter

Kelsie Johnson on graduation day with her grandparents, Wayne and Sandra Harris.

Kelsie Johnson’s thumb was decidedly not green growing up.

So it was all the more surprising to her grandparents when Johnson ‘16 announced she was pursuing horticulture and environmental conservation as a career.

“Kelsie has always been outgoing, but never did we picture her becoming involved in the Arboretum program or any of the outdoor type things,” said Johnson’s grandfather, Wayne Harris.

Expected or not, Harris and his wife, Sandra Harris, fully supported their oldest granddaughter’s chosen path, and have watched with delight as Johnson rose from volunteer to the UCF Arboretum’s program coordinator. Recently, their support took tangible form as a generous donation to the Arboretum’s endowment fund, which supports ongoing programming and student development at UCF’s beloved greenspace.

“The true motivation for the gift was seeing a young mind become so inspired and enjoy the program she’s working in,” Wayne Harris said. “Some jobs are just a paycheck, but you can see the passion she brings to her work.”

There are other reasons, too.

The Harris family lives in the heart of Florida in Sebring, a rural area dominated by citrus groves and pastures. Wayne Harris enjoys feeling soil in his hands, from helping a friend harvest watermelons to his own personal garden, which features towering sunflowers. There’s something noble about watching your food grow from a seed, Wayne Harris said.

One of the toughest chapters in their 59 years of marriage was the passing of their oldest daughter in 2015. Sandra Harris struggled to find some emotional grounding afterward, and immersing in nature proved incredibly therapeutic.

“Nature has so many healing properties,” Sandra Harris said.

Johnson’s expanding scientific knowledge has enhanced their understanding and appreciation for nature. She’s taught them the scientific names of certain plants, and provided advice on plants like which ones attract bugs and the right time for pruning.

These experiences, combined with their granddaughter’s affection for horticulture, compelled them to find ways for more students to access careers in nature. The resulting donation accomplishes exactly that.

“More young people today need know and experience creation,” Sandra Harris said.

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