Inspiring Expressions of Gratitude

Article and photos by Elizabeth Elba, Garden Educator, Bok Tower Gardens

When I joined Bok Tower Gardens as the Youth Program Educator in March of 2022, I only knew a little about what the job would entail. To my delight, I was told that I would be in an outdoor education role, working to engage primarily kids and some adults and allow them to connect more deeply with the unique natural spaces provided by the gardens. I was welcome to use my creativity on visitor engagement projects. Nowhere has my creativity found its place as much as with the Gratitude Tree project.

Early on, I learned that an old Crepe Myrtle tree had previously been found on the Pine Ridge Preserve and staged by education staff as an activity for visitors. The Gratitude Tree tree stood in a large planter on the sidewalk near the Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden entrance. Paper butterflies were prepared and left for visitors to write down their answers with colored pencils to the question: How will you make the world better or more beautiful? This inquiry was based on the wonderful adage Edward Bok popularized, which his grandmother had instructed him to remember as a boy, “Make the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” I immediately loved this idea and became inspired to continue engaging the hearts and minds of visitors with additional reflective questions through the Gratitude Tree.

What began with butterflies eventually developed into a constantly evolving, shape-changing, year-round gratitude project that has received thousands of adorable, profound, hilarious, creative, heart-wrenching, and relatable responses (and doodles) from guests all over the world and with all of the uniqueness that one can imagine. The tree itself speaks to the fact that our guests and visitors bring beauty to it and expresses the diversity of our human experience.

The Gratitude Tree at Bok Tower Gardens first inspires a moment of pause and reflection to those who approach it and choose to leave a response. Then, the bonus is reading the expressions from others who came before them, connecting them to those they will never meet. 

It is a gift to be creative and embrace my curiosity about the human experience in my role to keep the tree going. It has been a highlight of my time as an employee of the gardens. I am grateful for the organization I work for, which allows me to be a part of something this unique and for the participants who have expressed themselves on the small paper ornaments. Most importantly, I am thankful for the volunteers who have graciously donated their time to this project, creating thousands of paper ornaments for our guests because the display would not function without their work.

If you still need to leave your response on the gratitude tree and check out the responses, stop by the sidewalk leading to the Children’s Garden by the entrance to the Alexander Discovery Center.