As a member of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy staff who spends most of my time behind a desk, I wistfully watch as my colleagues – whom I affectionately call “the nature people” – march out the door each day to interact directly with our parks and the people who love them. Our office is at times a strange place, the convergence of the printers, faxes, and cubicles with post pounders, shovels, and fountain fixtures. I have gone to the kitchen to retrieve a second (or third) cup of coffee to find our Education Coordinator contemplating the storage of invertebrates gathered from a stream in Frick Park in our office refrigerator. Right next to my left-over chicken and rice.
Working in our development department, I get to meet a lot of passionate people at our fundraising events, and I have the opportunity to thank people for their generosity when they make the choice to give to us financially. I fervently advocate for our cause to improve the quality of life for the people of Pittsburgh through parks restoration in partnership with the City. It is not every day, however, that I get to dust off my Keens and stand shoulder to shoulder with the volunteers who contribute something equally as valuable – their time. It is rarer still that I have the beautiful experience of seeing how it all connects.
One such day was Saturday, October 20th when we held our third annual Panther Hollow Extravaganza. The volunteer day is our largest, and an integral part of our plan to restore the Panther Hollow Watershed and eventually, Panther Hollow Lake. The clouds hung dark and heavy with promise for rain, but our 200 volunteers were unshaken. “The nature people” moved quickly throughout the crowds, buzzing with the excitement of what the day would accomplish – what all these helping hands would mean for Schenley Park. Before the day was done, the volunteers would plant 125 trees, cut down hundreds of invasive vines, and clear a portion of a once impassable park trail. I was among these volunteers, eager to help and to learn.
I quickly found Parks Conservancy horticulturist, Angela Yuele, and joined her group on the Upper Panther Hollow trail cutting invasive porcelain berry vines away from trees. Angela gave us the loppers and gloves we would need to get the job done as well as a lesson in tool safety, demonstrating how the loppers should be used, held, and carried. She explained that porcelain berry is overtaking this section of the park and that as it winds its way up into the trees, it threatens their growth. Before we stepped off the trail and into the brush, Angela had one more thing to say. “Thank you all so much for coming,” she said. “By working in the park today you are part of a much bigger picture. Every little bit you do makes a difference.”
We spent hours hacking away at those vines, surrounded by foliage in kaleidoscopic fall color. When we emerged back onto the trail – picking the burrs from our hair – it felt as though we had in fact made a difference. As a writer, I am infatuated with stories. I love to discover a stranger’s character or learn what led them to stand right here, on this trail, with me. And so I began asking my fellow volunteers what compelled them to donate their day to the park. I found myself talking to a woman and her elementary-aged son, both of whom seemed very comfortable with our activity. They had both volunteered with us before, I learned. And then something unexpected…
“We love all the parks, but we just donated a tree to Highland Park,” the mother (whose name I learned was Thalia) said. I stopped dead in my tracks. Though we had never met, I had been Thalia’s contact for months after she got in touch with us to have a tree planted in honor of her mother and father-in-law. We had e-mailed each other countless times and chatted on the phone more than once. We had carefully considered the options of tree type and location to pay tribute to two people she loves so dearly. I had thanked her, again and again, for choosing to give a gift that would benefit the park and all those people who use it. I felt as though I was meeting an old friend, but for the first time.
I am astounded by the generosity of all of our donors, but the dedication of Thalia’s family to our mission through donation and actively volunteering is something remarkable and special. Meeting Thalia and her son on that trail reminded me that even as a desk-dweller, I am part of the story of this organization and the good work we do. And more importantly, that none of us, nature person or desk-dweller, would be able to do what we do without the dedication of our enthusiastic supporters. How lucky we are to live in a city with such a spirit of generosity. Remember – every little bit you do makes a difference.
Kathleen Gaines is a Development Associate at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.
If you’d like to support the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, consider making a donation, or join us for one of our volunteer days. Help us name our new smart phone app which will be released in summer of 2013.