Lending out her green thumb

COSTA MESA — Some call her the plant lady. She calls herself the Davis Gardner.

JoAnn Copp, a 68-year-old retired teacher, who sports a blue streak in the front of her white-blond hair and nine hoop earrings on her left ear, never stopped working at Davis Magnet School.

She just happened to trade in her dry-erase markers and red pens for a garden hose and shears.

"This is my passion," said Copp, a former special education teacher and longtime Costa Mesa resident. "I love being here at school and I love my plants."

For several days a week during the school year, Copp volunteers to water, pull weeds and prune the plants and flowers around Davis. Copp brought the school's first plants some 15 years ago; now there are nearly 300 potted plants around campus.

She also helps out with testing, dances, book fairs or whenever an extra adult is needed. Copp volunteered more than 2,400 hours last year.

"People do appreciate it, and that's all the pay I need," she said.

Copp, a member of the California Retired Teachers Assn. and Retired Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, is one of the volunteers being celebrated for their service this week during Retired Teachers Week.

The California Retired Teachers Assn.'s Harbor Beach Division 77 — which serves Newport-Mesa, Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach and Irvine — calculated that its members volunteered more than 35,000 hours last year at local schools, colleges, libraries, hospitals, senior services, churches and veteran services.

Across the state, association members have volunteered more than 2.3 million hours — services valued at nearly $50 million to the state, according the association.

"Once a teacher, always a teacher," said Davis office assistant Mary Gray. "They always come back."

Mary Zillgitt, 74, another retired teacher volunteering her time at Davis, said she has never really left the profession.

She works in the classroom teaching, testing students and reading to them.

Volunteering allows Zillgitt to concentrate on the best part of the job — actually teaching — without having to deal with everything else that goes along with it.

Davis third-grade teacher Angela Ivey continues to benefit from having Zillgitt, her mentor, help in the classroom. Ivey said it's very beneficial to have Zillgitt's teaching expertise and experience.

Zillgitt doesn't plan on slowing down.

"I'll keep doing it until they cart me away," she said.

For Copp, teaching was a second career and a natural choice. She started in customer service before getting married and raising her children.

But when she got divorced, she decided to go to Orange Coast College, and later Chapman University, to become a teacher.

Originally she wanted to work with hearing-impaired students, but a counselor convinced her to go into language disabilities.

Copp jokes that it was her bossy nature that made her go into education, but really it has always been her nature.

"I remember being at my house with my neighbors and I'd be the teacher," she said about her childhood. "I don't know why."

Copp came into teaching relatively late, at age 37.

Before Davis became a magnet school, Copp began bringing life to the campus' concrete exterior.

It all started with gardenias.

Copp planted 12 of them outside her classroom on the asphalt playground after not wanting to come out to the barren blacktop any longer.

The plants turned into a project for her students after they started watering them.

Then they became a tool to help her students calm down when upset; the plants gave the special education students a kind of prestige by taking care of them, Copp said.

When she retired in 2006, she just kept coming back.

"I didn't want to see the plants die, and I love this school," she said.

Copp's love for plants started at a young age. Her father kept a small rose garden that she sometimes helped with, but it was her Italian grandmother who instilled a love of planting.

Her grandmother kept a garden with some vegetables and sweet peas — those were her specialty — at her Upland home.

Copp's passion for gardening took off in adulthood. Her Costa Mesa house has a garden, but she said she's been too busy to pick the weeds in her own yard because of the time spent doing volunteer work, playing tennis and spending time with her grandchildren.

Her self-mandated job at Davis is a lot of work, and she almost gave it up once.

But it was one small gesture that kept her coming back.

"I had a student come up and say how much he loves the flowers in front of his class," she said.

britney.barnes@latimes.com

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes

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