Volunteer Spotlight: Karen Connolly - Cheekwood
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Volunteer Spotlight: Karen Connolly

Karen Connolly serves Cheekwood in a variety of essential ways, always putting education at the forefront of her efforts. As a Cheekwood Docent she attends monthly trainings on history, art exhibitions, and seasonal garden displays to enhance the visitor and student experience through her weekly tours.

As a volunteer, she participates in conservation events like Weed Wrangle Day and 250K Tree Day, as well as with gardening and art activities like our pre-kindergarten Tots! program. Karen has served as volunteer event captain for some of our biggest events and seasonal festivals such as Cheekwood in Bloom, Spring Art Hop, Cheekwood Harvest, Japanese Moon Viewing, and El Día de Muertos.

Karen is also Chair of our Volunteers Committee, serving as the liaison for staff and volunteers. Her friendliness, passion, and patience exemplify the spirit of hospitality — which is the cornerstone of Cheekwood. Every interaction with Karen is memorable, and every area of Cheekwood benefits from Karen’s contributions.

Karen’s contributions directly serve our mission, which includes “….stimulating the mind and nurturing the spirit.”  She educates the public about the significance of Cheekwood and its place in Nashville history, creates opportunities for discovery and creativity with our students, adds to the beauty of the gardens by doing gardening work with our staff, leads tours sharing the wonders of our natural world, is consistently updated and informed about our art exhibitions, and serves as an ambassador to people who come for a unique and engaging visit.

Karen volunteers from the heart. Her voice encourages many to learn and explore, and her ready smile is welcoming and warm. In her 4 years at Cheekwood, she has served 1,800 hours as a volunteer. She’s been recognized as recipient of our prestigious Catherine van Eys Friend of Cheekwood award, and was our 2018 Mary Catherine Strobel Award nominee in Direct Service. Her reward is elevating the experience for our many guests, staff, and other volunteers.

As a token of gratitude for her service, we’ve chosen Karen as this month’s Volunteer Spotlight, and asked her to share about her experience.


Tell us a little about yourself.

A Rhode Island native, I moved to the Nashville area about 15 years ago, when I was first introduced to Cheekwood. Now happily retired, I very much enjoy being a Cheekwood volunteer.

What are your favorite hobbies, activities, or interests?

I’m attracted to so much that Cheekwood has to offer. I’m an enthusiastic gardener, and interested in the arts and history. I’ve enjoyed expanding my knowledge of these at Cheekwood.

This year I’ve a new interest – raising a Golden Retriever puppy and so have joined the ranks of those who always have kibble in their pockets.

What is your favorite garden or area at Cheekwood and Why?

I have to say that I have two favorites. Early spring in the Carell Dogwood Garden and the Howe Garden are wonderful places for finding hidden treasures at Cheekwood as the spring perennials make their all too brief appearancesIf you look for them, you will find lily of the valley, bluebells, celandine poppies, mayapples, trillium and so many more early bloomers. They’re worth the search.

What is your favorite room or area in the Historic Mansion & Museum, Frist Learning Center, or Botanic Hall? Why?

The Morning Room in the Historic Mansion & Museum is my favorite room. With its tranquility and lovely proportions, more than in any other room in the mansion I can imagine the Cheeks enjoying the room while looking out over the Swan Lawn before setting out on the day’s activities.

Do you have a favorite art piece at Cheekwood, or, if not, a favorite exhibition that Cheekwood has hosted? Is there a reason you like it?

This is a hard one. Once again, I can’t select just one. I have two favorites. Derived from the Decorative appealed to my enjoyment and interest in the decorative arts, with its playful blurring of the lines between the decorative and fine arts. I especially liked giving tours of this exhibit as visitors seemed to have a lot of fun in looking at the works from the perspectives of both decorative and fine arts.

The Childhood Classics is another favorite. As a docent, I most enjoyed leading children’s tours, where the children were excited to recognize old favorites in a new way. I do believe that just about all the children, and their parents, have read Charlotte’s Web.

My favorite tour was my youngest tour – a group of pre-schoolers. Working quickly with the tour’s leader when they arrived, we decided on a brief experiential tour, focusing on the reading room with an interactive story time. Whether in a library, at school, or in a museum, the little ones enjoy a beanbag chair and a good story.


In what ways have you been involved as a volunteer with Cheekwood so far?

Because of the many facets of Cheekwood, the volunteer program offers a wide variety of volunteer opportunities and I try to take advantage of as many as I can. I started as a garden docent. Then one thing just led to another. I became a House & History and exhibition docent, work as a garden volunteer, assist the Education department in program prep and working with the children’s programs, greet visitors and work as a volunteer captain during events, help with volunteer outreach and Cheekwood outreach programs, and help with community conservation events.

Why did you become a volunteer?

It started on my first visit to Cheekwood shortly after I moved to the Nashville area, where the peace and beauty of Cheekwood made an indelible impression on me. I knew immediately that I wanted to know more about and become a part of Cheekwood. I was lucky enough to have taken a docent led garden tour, where I learned about the volunteer programs. Fast forward several years until I was able to take the training and I have been a docent and volunteer ever since.

What have you enjoyed the most about your volunteer experience?

I think that I most enjoy the interactions with people, whether the visitors from all over with whom I share my love of Cheekwood, the other volunteers that I work with and learn from or the staff who are always so generous and welcoming. I appreciate the training I’ve received that allows me to tell the Cheekwood story, inform visitors about the gardens and mansion, or share information about the exhibits.

Is there a funny or inspirational story you can briefly tell about your volunteer experience?

Cheekwood is a wonderful place for the spirit, whether you are tired out from your workday world or if you are a toddler who is needs some time for herself. I came upon a toddler who was stretched out on a pathway and immediately went over to see if I could help. The mom, unfazed, simply replied that her toddler was just having a moment. Within seconds, the toddler bounced up to explore further.

Do you have any advice for individuals considering volunteering with Cheekwood?

Just do it. You won’t know if you’ll like it until you try.

Also, try different volunteer opportunities. There are opportunities to match so many interests. Volunteers can focus on particular areas of great interest to them such as a docent or garden volunteer or they can volunteer for a wide variety of opportunities. Except for docents, there’s no volunteer hour requirements so a volunteer can volunteer as much or as little as they want to. You will feel welcomed if you volunteer for just a few hours or if you volunteer for many hours.

Are you interested in volunteering at Cheekwood? Click here to learn more!

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