Moving Forward: Chenda Lor and SLO Botanical Gardens

Written by Judy Salamacha

November 23, 2022

Chenda Lor, the executive director at the SLO Botanical Gardens.

A 2022 déjà vu story of another business able to jump leaps during the worldwide pandemic. This columnist is delighted to repeat myself! If you haven’t been to the SLO Botanical Gardens lately then you really haven’t been there. 

Amazing things are happening since Executive Director Chenda Lor was recruited in 2019.  She was prepared to transition to a new career as an entrepreneurial life coach until Jill Bolster-White, executive director of Transitions Mental Health, suggested Lor’s talents were a match for the director position soon opening at the gardens. 

“The Garden is my passion project,” said Lor. “This job merged my career goals, community service advocacy, and a reason to get up and love going to work every day.” She has described her day-job as a gift to re-gift: “…a beautiful garden — it’s like a blank canvas — to give back to the community by working to build this magical public treasure.”   

The master plan is in progress. Projects are in various stages of development. And it is abundantly obvious to her board of directors, her 24 staff members, 100+ volunteers, a growing list of members and those regular or first-time visitors that something special is happening on the 150 acres visible from Hwy 1 across from Cuesta College. 

Just check out the website, www.slobg.org. The events offered are almost overwhelming — certainly something to attract all ages — touring, tasting, playing in the sandbox, or hanging a wish on the wishing tree, or booking space for a public or private gathering inside or outside the gardens.

Next up, for example, is Nature Lights, an “Outdoor Holiday Light and Art Exhibit for the Entire Family” happening Thursdays through Sundays, November 11 through January 8 with three timed ticket options, 5, 6, and 7 p.m. at a nominal donation – contributing to help Lor and her staff build SLOBG.  

“But I know I can’t do it alone. The community has to want it and be actively involved to make it happen,” said Lor. “I’ve learned to let my staff do what they do best. And I’ve discovered skills I have to attract people with diverse interests to share another piece of this dream project, together.”

So, who is Chenda Lor? 

Born in Cambodia, her family joined extended family in a suburb near Chicago in 1980 to escape the Khmer Rouge Cambodian genocide. She was 5-years-old and thrived growing up with cousins.

Starting her first job in high school at 15 and keeping it through her second year of college, she learned to manage every department at a home and building business. Proud of her on-the-job-training, she said, “I learned to love building and design all the way through planting the landscaping process.”    

At Bates College, MN she studied pre-Med with double science majors in geology and biology and a minor in studio art. Before graduating she added wife and motherhood to her resume ultimately managing to raise four talented children. 

In 1997 the young family would buy their first property on Bainbridge Island, WA. Lor managed the homefront while working with the architect, building department, contractor, and sub-contractors to produce the couple’s first of many future building projects – their own home.   

Her husband’s family lived in SLO. “After one hundred days of no sunshine, we moved,” Lor said. “I had my fourth baby at Sierra Vista.” And bills had to be paid. “Contracting paid better than medicine so we developed Better Builders.” The partnership business started as a framing contractor and closed as a preferred luxury homebuilder when the 2008 recession impacted the industry.

They sold their home in a week, put their household treasures in a Seatrain and launched a 15-month worldwide family tour from Colorado to 6-months in New Zealand and 6- months in Granada, Spain. 

Once home in SLO the kids didn’t miss a grade-level beat, dad decided to matriculate graduate school at Cal Poly and Mom’s journal, written while on tour, transformed into a someday-published manuscript. She also became the breadwinner, collecting the family paycheck from T&S Structural.

Restless in 2019, the SLO Botanical Gardens opportunity presented itself. When asked for a short list of milestones, she offered:

· Relationship building to produce a land use agreement with SLO County, then an MOU for daily operations with SLO County Parks,

· Create the Donor Wall to recognize those that started the gardens and have continued to build the dream,

· Source and train a community board of directors and partners county-wide of like-minded, action-oriented dreamers,

· Design, fund and build the Education Center,

· Once a staff of 2, in 2022 manage 8 fulltime; 8 seasonal and 8 parttime employees plus 100s of volunteers, including Boys & Girls Scouts, a rotating daily garden maintenance crew and wonderfully giving and creative artists,

· Craft the ever-growing magical Children’s Garden,

· Establish programs to attract continuing members and volunteers,

· Launch sustaining fund-raising programs, like Nature Lights, inaugurated in 2022.   

Lor is now in her happy place living the single life in Morro Bay while smiling as her children become adults and launch their careers. Her youngest Sarah is at the New York Institute of Culinary Arts, Kayley is a junior at the University of Hawaii, Zander is a wealth management advisor in West Los Angeles, and Mica is teaching in San Francisco. And when she takes time for herself, Mom finds exercise, meditation and freedom surfing by Morro Rock.

All in all, team captain Chenda Lor is more than the coach calling plays from the sidelines. Her career journey taught her to multi-task wearing multiple hats so she is also the quarterback – and she has already proven she can build a winning team to manage SLO County’s community landscaped stadium and playground.

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