April 10, 2003

Volunteers build community

  • When money is scarce, neighborhood residents can provide skills and muscle
    Special to the Journal

     Carkeek Park Trails Committee
    A Carkeek Park Trails Committee work party lays down an asphalt path.

    Once upon a time, public spending stretched across the region and provided funding for planted roadways, environmental restorations, safe new playgrounds, quality playfields and parks.

    Times have changed. It’s not likely that we’ll soon again have city, county or state budgets that include generous funding to build, restore and maintain our public facilities and open spaces. But even as school and park departments are undergoing major cutbacks, the demand for trails, playgrounds, sports fields, healthy streams and public landscapes continues to increase.

    Much of the financial shortfall will be made up by volunteers, from private citizens to non-profit groups such as school PTAs, sports clubs, environmental stewardship organizations and community groups. April is Earth month and thousands of volunteers will be out in force to do the work that serves all of us. From clearing out ivy from a neighborhood park to planting street trees or refurbishing a playfield, volunteer work crews are providing the skill and muscle once paid for with public funding.

    Under the direction of design consultants, hundreds of private volunteers bring their skills and enthusiasm to local projects supported through the neighborhood matching funds available from Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. The Small and Simple Grant program, intended to build partnerships between neighborhoods and the city, provides up to $15,000, and the Large Project Fund can bring between $15,000 and $100,000 for local undertakings. The results can be enjoyed at community centers, schools and local parks around the city.

    More information about this program can be found at (206) 684-0406 or at or

    Theresa McEwen of the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department reports that over the past five years she’s worked with well over 500 volunteer groups. Two-thirds of this volunteer force is made up of individuals simply giving their own time and a third are groups such as businesses (Microsoft, Windemere), clubs (Rotary, Boy Scouts), students from organizations like the Earth Service Corps, or kids with a special school-related project.

    Seattle Public Schools now require a total of 60 volunteer service hours from each graduating high school student and most private high schools have similar requirements. Lots of students reach and exceed their service hours by becoming involved with environmentally related projects that get them out of the classroom and into a larger learning environment.

    Laurie Ames, Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, has seen hundreds give their time and energy to improving their neighborhood, community, and city wide parks and public schools.

    Trails, playgrounds and schoolyards

    Volunteers have already accomplished a lot.

    Worthy and Associates inventoried conditions and planned trail improvements at Carkeek Park, and then much of the work was carried out with volunteer labor. Citizen volunteers Lex Voorhoeve, Dale Johnson and Cynthia Wilson — members of Carkeek Park Advisory Committee — have worked side by side with a broad group of volunteers contributing 5,800 hours in the past three years to support Seattle Parks’ crews with trail maintenance and construction. Carkeek Park’s trail network has since achieved regional notice.

    At Loyal Heights, Graham Hill, Stanislow, Rogers and other Seattle schools, parent volunteers completed 150 projects last year — from painting a classroom and grounds clean up to replacing a complete playground.

    “It is really amazing what parent volunteers have accomplished despite their busy schedules,” said Gretchen DeDecker of Seattle School District Self-Help Program. “Seattle Schools have benefited over a million dollars in savings of taxpayers’ money.”

    One project being successfully completed as a result of volunteer efforts is the John Rogers Elementary playground in northeast Seattle where an asphalt playground had deteriorated to the point that it was unusable.

    The John Rogers Elementary PTA Playground Renovation Committee, headed by Francoise Stotler, brought in managers from a local Hyatt Hotel and Washington Mutual Bank, the Boy Scouts, some Nathan Hale High School students, and lots of parents to help. As a result of their combined efforts and oversight from Worthy and Associates, this previously unusable space is being transformed with a new playground, fencing, attractive landscape planters and pavement resurfacing.

    Asphalt removal and new playground equipment came from a $40,000 grant from the “Gray to Green” program administered by Maureen Colaizzi with Seattle Parks and Allynn Ruth with the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. Volunteers’ efforts cut the total project cost in half, saving the public $80,000.

    The John Rogers Elementary Playground ribbon cutting is scheduled for May 4, from 2-4 p.m.

    The city isn’t the only local government making partnerships with volunteers. Thousands of hours have been provided by people volunteering their time in King County’s program to salvage plants from construction sites before the bulldozers move in to create a new development.

    Volunteers dig up valuable plants, put them on trucks that take them to a nursery where another group of volunteers unloads them for temporary storage. Yet another group plants them where they’ll hold stream banks in place or improve a deteriorated hillside. Volunteer groups regularly maintain trails throughout the county, a function once paid for under the county’s budget — but no longer.

    In quieter military times during 2000, the US Navy Construction Battalion stationed in Kitsap County provided a site construction crew at Sands Avenue Park, who along with retired contractors, assisted with over $150,000 in earth moving. All the Park District had to do was pay for fuel and pizza. Staff from Worthy and Associates helped the Park District train, organize and schedule volunteer efforts.

    Perry Barrett, senior planner with the Bainbridge Island Park and Recreation District has worked with non-profit sports groups such as Little League, soccer and Babe Ruth Baseball organizations getting sports fields at Hidden Cove, Battle Point and Sands Avenue parks built and maintained.

    Non-monetary rewards

    What kind of people turn out to work?

    Retired bankers, principals, doctors, former dot-comers and many individuals who work full time become involved in community activities and all get down — and in many cases dirty — to make a change in the landscape of their communities.

    For many it’s not just the visible change they can see but it’s also the change they can feel when they know they’re providing the valuable service of stewardship. Coming together to build a playground or to clean up a stream corridor also creates a strong bond among workers and strengthens their sense of ownership over the resource. When kids are involved on a successful project they’ll work to maintain conditions and will actively work to prevent vandalism.

    One invaluable aspect of volunteer efforts is the potential for education of the individuals who provide the work. Each one who gives their time comes away with new knowledge learned in completing new tasks and being exposed to a new environment.

    Students who never knew that poison hemlock grew at Golden Gardens can now identify that plant as well as a few others in the revegetation efforts going on at that park. Unemployed dot-comers who planted street trees all over Queen Anne can now identify at least three different species of trees and know the importance of maintenance, fertilizing and watering.

    Learning opportunities exist for everyone willing to try something new and different.

    Special challenges

    While community members are eager and able, there are special challenges to organizing a construction effort using volunteer groups:

    Continuity. One of the challenges incurred by public agencies and private landscape architectural firms using a volunteer task force is finding continuity when there’s the potential for periodic turnover. It’s important to create a strong bond with the leadership of any group and to cultivate the ongoing good will of everyone involved. And landscape construction isn’t the only job. Volunteers with great cooking skills go a long way to getting volunteer work parties fueled up and keeping them happy, according to Francoise Stotler, volunteer project manager at John Rogers Elementary.

    Standards. Sometimes getting volunteers to follow agency design standards for quality and durability can prove to be a challenge. Getting volunteers to recognize the need to follow rules and orders where their safety is at risk is a primary concern. Use of tools, correct methods of lifting heavy objects, and even mastering a loaded wheelbarrow are taught by Jacobo Jimenez and his supervisor Chukundi Salisbury, Trails Coordinator of Seattle Parks and Recreation Department.

    Scheduling. Timing and scheduling can also present challenges, as when a project has pre-determined deadlines and work crews sometimes have their own agenda. When inclement weather strikes and a mile-long stretch of stream bank has to be cleared of invasive weeds, it takes more than a little effort to create enthusiasm and competency.

    Organization skills, communication, persuasion and leadership are necessary for successfully pulling off a large group effort and it’s up to the team leader to make sure that all is properly orchestrated. And, even though intentions are good and hopes are high, getting groups of individuals with varying levels of ability to achieve a common goal requires additional oversight and vigilance on the part of volunteer group leaders, landscape architects and public project managers.

    The key is to keep volunteer involvement at a realistic and manageable level. Smaller steps to success are best and over-commitments must be avoided. And when something has to give, finishing and quality of work win out over schedule.

    Will we ever again have full funding to meet all our school, park and public facility needs? Probably not. But warm bodies that turn up early on cold Saturday mornings bring great value to parks and school playgrounds. They help to build community and a sense of responsibility.

    Steve Worthy is principal of Worthy and Associates, and Diane Steen is a landscape architect and writer.

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