Drive east through Olivette on Olive Boulevard and you're sure to notice the sweeping garden at Veterans Park, next to McDonald's. In the winter, the garden is striking with the muted shapes and shades of dormant plants.
In the summer, it's boldly colored with flowers and flowering trees to attract the eye of motorists speeding by at 40 mph.
It all happens because of volunteers from the city's 12-year-old nonprofit beautification organization Olivette in Bloom. And the volunteers happen because of Jan Fitzgerald, the organization's volunteer coordinator.
"Without her herding the cats, the gardens wouldn't look the way they do," said Tracy McCreery, a 10-year Olivette resident who is the outgoing president of Olivette in Bloom. "She's good at pointing us all in the right direction—and more importantly, doing it without sounding like she's hounding us."
Olivette in Bloom maintains three public gardens in the city with the help of volunteers and $5,000 in donations from companies and community members. In addition to the garden at Veterans Park, there are public gardens in Stacy Park and the Olivette Community Center.
Fitzgerald has worked as a volunteer with Olivette in Bloom for five years. She coordinates the work of about 50 volunteers during the season from March to November, and says the praise from community members is the best recruiting tool.
"You have to let them know they are appreciated," she said. "Gardeners are great people to be around. They all like to see something grow. First and foremost, we thank each other all the time. We get really nice comments from people and we share that all the time."
She's been told the garden at Veterans Park "is the most beautiful bus top in Metro St. Louis."
Fitzgerald's name came to Patch's attention when McCreery nominated her to be Patch "Person of the Year" for Olivette. Her's was the only nomination, and we were definitely eager to learn more about her.
Her involvement with Olivette in Bloom isn't the only way she serves the community. She's also become involved with the Alzheimers Association of St. Louisrontal temporal disintegration, a form of early-onset dementia.
Fitzgerald said she struggled for months as doctors tried to make the diagnosis that would help him and her family.
"It was quite a learning curve for me," she said. "We went through a long period of misdiagnosis. Medical professionals are becoming much more aware of it."
She said the illness manifests similarly to Alzheimers, with memory loss, personality changes, the loss of social skills and more. Diagnosed at age 57, Keith was a St. Louis architect who now lives in a 24/7 care facility.
Fitzgerald facilitates two support groups for care-givers who are coping with the same issues she's faced. She's done some limited lobbying on behalf of advocates of the disorder and she steps in to help when care-givers she knows need to step out of the house for a bit.
For her, it's just natural to give back to the community.
"I'm very fortunate to have a community of people I have. My family, my sons, my brother and the group of people who I call 'family by choice'," Fitzgerald said. "We provide quite a strong network for each other. That's how I was raised and it's a good way to live."