How many of us can say that our first real job was in a place so incredible and unique that we never left? Our newest FACE of Memphis certainly can! Fresh out of Bartlett High School, Gina Harris began teaching summer camps at Memphis Botanic Garden in 1993. Nearly 30 years later, she’s still there. Now the Director of Education and Events, Gina manages educational programming, entertainment events, and traveling exhibits at the 96-acre jewel in the heart of East Memphis.
This year, Memphis Botanic Garden welcomes the stunning Alice’s Adventures at the Garden. Based on the beloved children’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the showstopper features larger-than-life greenery sculptures, Alice’s Garden, White Rabbits, Cheshire Cat Grins, and much more. Meet our newest FACE of Memphis, Memphis Botanic Garden’s Gina Harris.
What attracted you to your first job at Memphis Botanic Garden, and why did you stay?
To get paid to be outside, hanging out with kids, and teaching them about plants and nature was great! In my first summer camp, the groups I worked with were kids from inner-city Memphis. It was a completely new experience for them. I loved introducing them to nature and watching their eyes light up. It was hot and sweaty and hard work, but it was so much fun.
I’ve stayed because I absolutely love what I do. I love being outside, teaching kids about nature, and doing something different every day. I am not a “routine” person. I could never sit in an office. And every day, the space itself is different! You never know what the Garden will look like when you walk out the door.
Where did your career at MBG go from that summer job?
During college, I worked part-time, doing birthday parties, weekend classes, and summer camps. In 1996, one of the full-time education department employees left. Mary Helen Butler was the Director of Education then — she is the true heart of the Garden and built the education department. She asked if I wanted the job, and of course, I said “yes.”
I worked in the education department, but I also did room rentals and other jobs as needed. That’s how the Garden is. We are like a big family, and everyone pitches in. You do what you need to do; if it’s your job, great, and if it’s not, you smile and do it anyway.
Executive Director Jim Duncan was the one who promoted me from Education Program Manager to Director of Education. Mary Helen moved from Director of Education to Assistant Director. That had me shaking in my boots — looking at the legacy she’d built and realizing that I’d be responsible for making sure that the department continued to succeed and grow. But Jim gave me great confidence and gave us room to make changes.
When you stepped into the role, what kind of changes did you make?
My Big Backyard was a big one. Mary Helen and I had talked and dreamed about the concept for years, and Jim said we could make it happen. It completely changed the Garden; the designer we hired said no other botanic garden had anything like it.
Over the years, we’ve built programs that bring kids in. We’re teaching them, but we are making it fun. Memphis Botanic Garden serves close to 40,000 kids a year now. Today, for example, we have a busload of 200 schoolchildren coming in to learn about jungles, and we have homeschoolers coming for an Alice tea party.
How did traveling exhibits become a part of your job?
When he first came on board, our current director Mike Allen asked us to name the one thing we wanted to do that we hadn’t been able to achieve yet. Our answer was traveling exhibits. Other gardens had them, and it was a “pie in the sky” dream for us. I felt like we were ready, and the Garden was right on the edge of being able to soar. Mike gave us the ability to make it happen. Our first one was the Big Bugs exhibit. I’d seen it at the Denver Botanic Garden and loved it. Origami at the Garden followed. We had another exhibit scheduled for 2020, but we all know what happened in ’20.
I’d seen an Alice in Wonderland-themed exhibit in 2018. Atlanta Botanical Garden had designed and developed the Alice-themed exhibit in collaboration with Mosaïcultures Internationales de Montréal. I called them, and they were happy to work with us.
Can you give us a “sneak peek” of what to expect for Alice’s Adventures at the Garden?
We will be the first garden outside of Atlanta to showcase the Alice pieces. You’ll see huge sculptures of Alice in the middle of the Iris Garden, the Cheshire Cat in the Sensory Garden, a Chess Set near the Tram Stop, and in the Four Seasons Court is the Red Queen; she’s 20 feet tall.
We are pushing the theme through the whole garden. We reached out to artists on social media to design White Rabbits, so there will be a rabbit hunt throughout our 96 acres. Most of the artists are local, but one is from Italy. She follows Memphis Botanic Garden on Instagram, saw the call for artists, and contacted me! Each rabbit is an artist’s own interpretation of the White Rabbit in the story.
The Idea Garden is transformed into Alice’s Garden. Children can paint the roses red, join an imaginary tea party, and go down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, a fun little slide we had built just for this exhibit.
What do you wish more people knew about Memphis Botanic Garden?
Many people come for a wedding reception or Live at the Garden, but I don’t think many people know about everything else we have to offer. The Garden is a safe place in the middle of the city to enjoy beauty, discovery, and relaxation. We are truly a Garden for everyone.
Where can we find you when you are not working?
I’ve got four daughters, so I’m usually with my family! My oldest daughter runs track, and you’ll often find me cheering her on. I ran track, and she runs the exact same events, so that makes it even more fun to watch. Another daughter is a basketball player, so I’m at the court a lot. We also have a farm in Mississippi, so you can find me there when I am relaxing.
What’s your best advice?
Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s all going to work out in the end.
Aside from faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
My workout, laughter, and music.
Visit our FACES archives to meet more inspiring Memphis women.