Nature Lovers Need Apply: Join Us As A Volunteer Naturalist

Visit any of our country’s national parks, and the first few faces that greet you on your way in are there to help you make the most of your time outdoors. They’re trained to help you find the right trail, stay safe, learn about park history, and maybe, most importantly, locate a bathroom. These wonderful people make your park adventure exponentially better.

Soon, friendly faces like those found in our national parks will also greet you upon arrival in Frick Park. And, we’re excited to announce, one of those faces could be yours!

The new building will serve as a welcome center at the gates of Frick Park.

Starting this year, we’re introducing a new opportunity fit for those who love parks and want to tell the whole world about ’em. The new Volunteer Naturalists program, kicking off next month, will train a small cadre of park lovers to be part docent, tour guide, and welcome wagon at the new Frick Environmental Center.

What is the Volunteer Naturalist program?

Commencing February 8th, the program includes eight small-group trainings that cover topics like Frick Park history, park interpretation, CPR, and the new Frick Environmental Center building. Taught by long-time Naturalist Educator Mike Cornell, these trainings are designed to give Volunteer Naturalists — whatever their background coming into the program — the tools to be park experts.


Mike says: “Any adult can become a Volunteer Naturalist. All you need is a passion for nature and history, and a desire to share that passion!”

The Frick Environmental Center, once opened, will be home base for the Volunteer Naturalist squad. They’ll be stationed here to provide park visitors with insights on things like the best trails for strollers, the energy-saving aspects of the new Center, how to get involved in volunteering, and much more.

In case you needed any more reason to join, Volunteer Naturalists will also be getting special swag like shirts, hats, and water bottles!

Applications are currently being accepted for this program. Interested? Find more information and sign up here.

Questions? Contact Mike at

Volunteer Spotlight: The Keeper of Mellon Park

Standing at the junction of four neighborhoods is one man who scares the thistles off of invasive plants.

“That over there is Garlic Mustard Heaven… at least, it was,” points out John Olmsted, Shadyside neighbor and volunteer extraordinaire, triumphantly. He’s taking three Parks Conservancy staffers on a personal tour of Mellon Park, showing us the spots he knows like his own backyard and telling us about how he came to have such an impact on the park.

john olmsted

“John is definitely the keeper of this park.”

Angela, Parks Conservancy horticulturist, has pulled weeds alongside John for years. After moving around post graduate school, John and his wife returned to Pittsburgh to be closer to children and grandchildren. And he has since become a quiet but significant change-maker in this historic community park.

IMG_1738Mellon Park, situated at the junction of Regent Square, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill and Point Breeze has never been adopted entirely by one group over the years. This setup has made for some interesting development throughout the grounds: The Parks Conservancy restored the serene Walled Garden as a Capitol Project; Phipps houses a greenhouse and has experimental show gardens around the grounds; groups like the Herb Society handle particular plots, such as the Shakespeare Garden; and a number of community members take other small plots in their own garden-gloved hands when they have the time.

That’s where John comes in. After moving to the perfect house just across the street from Mellon, John made his way over to the park during his free time, pulling some invasive plants here and there until, five years later, he’s tackling whole beds. “So far, none of the maintenance people have complained that I’m taking work away from them,” he jokes. With only a bit of previous gardening experience (John’s father grew a victory garden during WWII, his mother had a garden of her own), John first tackled whole sections of garlic mustard and Canada thistle from established daffodil and daylily gardens — and then kept them cleared.

We especially appreciate John’s story of dedication to Mellon Park because 17 years ago, that same drive inspired the creation of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Faced with the deteriorating conditions of the parks, a cadre of concerned Pittsburghers decided to start an organization to work towards maintenance and restoration of the parks. John, too, has stepped up to fill a need to keep the greenspaces he appreciates in really fantastic condition.

daffodil buds

Daffodils peeking through the soil in the beds John tends


As we stroll through the park with John, we give him all the kudos we can for his work in Mellon Park. He’ll be out there again this spring, whacking away at the weeds that creep up in the daffodil beds. He has a standing offer to anyone that wants to join him on his crusade to bust burdock.

Lauryn Stalter for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Wondering about the name? John is indeed connected to the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. “Four generations back and four steps over,” as he says.

Daffodils like those pictured above will be welcoming Spring soon. Support our efforts to keep these gardens growing by contributing to the Daffodil Project.

Giving Thanks: Janet of All Trades and 2013 Volunteers

Ten minutes into my interview with Janet Pazzynski, I fully realized why a friend of hers urged her to write a how-to book on retirement.

Janet, AKA Janet of All Trades, weeding in Riverview

Janet’s ever-expanding resume is impressive: graphic designer, actress, unofficial Riverview Park tour guide, Pittsburgh lover, gardener, and volunteer, among many other things. Her last title, volunteer, being the reason for her visit to the Parks Conservancy office one cold Tuesday morning.

“It started with one perennial garden in Riverview Park.”

Janet first began her extensive volunteer career with the Parks Conservancy by simply asking to help. Janet dreamed of being a gardener while working at a telephone company, and after retiring at an early age,  Janet asked if she could help the Parks Conservancy with the planting of a flower bed in Riverview Park.

“If you’re planting this bed, you gotta weed it,” a volunteer leader told her, jokingly.

“Can I!?”

Janet’s sign in front of the English knot garden

Little did anyone know, Janet would eventually take on the herculean task of helping to look after 12 flower beds in Riverview Park. Working with Parks Conservancy horticulturist, Angela Yuele, Janet personally adopted each bed one by one, working on them once a week from the first buds of spring until deadheading season in the fall. Janet also lent her skills at digital design by creating a sign for Riverview’s recently established English knot garden

Janet says that caring for the park gardens has just become a part of her schedule; she goes out on her own every week to weed the beds through the summer months. “It’s therapeutic,” she says. Riverview Park has always been a part of her life (sitting with her for an hour, you can learn the complete history of the park and all of its hidden secrets, like where to find the old zoo), and she says it’s the best feeling when neighbors and park visitors tell her how beautifully the gardens are growing.

Because of her experience in Riverview, Janet recently took a position as a professional gardener — something she’s been wanting to do for a long time. But don’t worry, she won’t abandon her beds come next spring.

We give a big thanks to Janet for all of her work helping our park gardens blossom. And next year, when you visit Blossom Lane, the knot garden, and the flower beds in Riverview Park, don’t forget to tell the rock star community member tackling weeds just how gorgeous the gardens look. 

Volunteers 2013

Volunteers like Janet help us accomplish an extraordinary amount of important work in the parks. This year, volunteers came out in record numbers to really make an impact in our park communities. Here are the numbers we crunched for 2013, our biggest year yet:

1,570 volunteers came out to work in the parks

1,300 trees and shrubs were planted

Volunteers completed 5,500 hours of work  

Volunteer hours amounted to $119,000

(based on national volunteer hour rates)

At the Parks Conservancy, we’re giving thanks this week and every week for our tireless, enthusiastic, and passionate volunteers. We can’t wait to see everyone again in the parks next year!

Lauryn Stalter, Riverview Park enthusiast (thanks to Janet’s recommendations of this video and this video) for The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.   

Volunteers: A reason to give thanks

Confessions of a park volunteer

Steve, leading a crew at this year’s Panther Hollow Extravaganza

I must say, before I volunteered with The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, I thought I had a pretty good handle on things.

I grew up in the 60’s in the country. My dad never owned a TV and there were no video games, personal computers, calculators, or cell phones. The woods and fields of Armstrong County were my playground. I lost countless hammers and saws building forts in the woods, aggravating my dad to no end! My Schwinn was my best friend.  We read books – lots of them. We had a garden the size of a football field. We raised chickens and ducks and I worked on a nearby farm. I drove a farm tractor before I was allowed to drive a car. So, as an adult, I thought I knew quite a lot about quite a lot.

That changed when I turned 50, my milestone. My kids were grown and on their own. I had time. I needed something to do. One day, while looking for maps online, I stumbled across The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy web site and the Urban EcoSteward program. So I joined. While attending Urban EcoSteward training, I was surprised to find out I didn’t know so much.

Each training session involved actual field practice – not much classroom time here. We learned by doing. Rain or shine we learned how to plant trees by planting trees. We learned to identify invasive plants by going out and removing them spring, summer, and fall. There were a variety of trainings, too, like seed propagation, erosion control, and winter tree ID.  The Parks Conservancy staff, past and present, are all wonderful, friendly, helpful, dedicated, and most of all, knowledgeable people. But there was a problem.

The oak wilt site in Highland Park

Now that I was familiar with most of the invasive species present in our parks, I saw them everywhere. I could spot them a mile away along roads, in fields, in the woods, and even in the city.  Everywhere! What a jolt. I had to sort this out somehow. How could we possibly win this battle? The answer, I think, is with more volunteers working with The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and many other organizations committed to restoring our woodlands. So how could I help? I became a crew leader with the training of the Parks Conservancy. That is how! The more volunteers there are, the more work that can be accomplished. At least I can be part of the solution.

Each experience I’ve had with the Parks Conservancy is remarkable to me and repeated by many others I’m sure. Here are just a few:

  • Finding a dozen tires on my EcoSteward site and carrying them to a designated drop off a hundred yards away. Not only are tires unsightly, but they breed mosquitoes. Here’s to your health!
  • Leading a crew of 6th graders from the Winchester Thurston School who were celebrating the school’s 150th anniversary by planting 150 trees in the Highland Park oak wilt area. I could tell they had loads of fun getting out of the classroom and digging in the dirt.
  • Three pawpaw trees and one redbud volunteered to grow on my site. Deer fence were installed to protect these new trees, thanks to a Highland Park work day crew.
  • Teaching a volunteer how to blow his nose in the woods without a hanky. (Isn’t that what long sleeves are for?)
  • Opening a hydrant (authorization required!)
  • Picking garbage off the hillside above the oval bike loop in Highland Park and selling the recovered scrap metal to help the Pittsburgh Trails Advocacy Group build and maintain multiuse trails on that hillside. To this day, I still walk these trails with my Chihuahua, the fastest Chihuahua in Pittsburgh!
  • Planting dozens of trees on a landslide in Riverview Park, preventing further erosion.
  • Planting ten or so hackberry trees on my site. I carried buckets of water from a seemingly great distance to help those trees survive.
  • Girdling Norway maple and sycamore maple (invasive species) on my site. They eventually die and fall. Watch out!

If I sound excited, it’s because I am. Yes, I get irritated at people who litter. I fall a lot and I get dirty (my balance isn’t what it used be). Poison ivy beats me up at least once a year. But I’m always having fun and learning, thanks to The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

Steve Harvan, a long-time volunteer and Urban EcoSteward with The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Learn more about Steve and his love of the parks on his blog and photography site.

A cardinal in the park, captured by Steve

Education through Restoration – Creating Meaningful Service-Learning Projects in the Parks

I love breakfast meetings. First off, there is breakfast. Plus I am a morning person so I’m freshest and most engaged for these early morning gatherings. A couple of days ago I found myself at a breakfast meeting sitting next to a woman who works with youth through the Allegheny County Department of Human Services. I had just returned from a week-long training on service learning with the Community Works Institute so when she mentioned that her kids need to perform community service and asked if there was anything they could do in the parks my answer was a resounding “Yes!” – but with a twist. I said we had lots of opportunities for youth service projects in the parks, but that we aim to have our programs go beyond service to service-learning. She was clutching her coffee (not a morning person, perhaps) and looked at me with a quizzical what’s the difference? expression.

I immediately leapt into a quick overview of how ‘service learning’ builds on ‘community service’, enriching the participant experience significantly. I stressed that if her kids came out into the parks with us they would not only complete a great project, they would actually be given the opportunity to understand more about the why of the work. We would help make connections between their on-the-ground efforts and the larger needs that they are helping to address. Perhaps most importantly, though, they would have the chance to reflect on the impact they were having – and the impact the work was having on them.

Shelburne Farms

Before I began CWI’s Institute on Service Learning EAST at Shelburne Farms just outside of Burlington, Vermont, I felt sure that our educational programs were already using service learning. Joining me at the training were Taiji Nelson, the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy’s Education Program Coordinator, and two Naturalist Educators from the Frick Environmental Center, Lydia Konecky and Eva Barinas. The Parks Conservancy Board of Directors had generously agreed to fund this professional development opportunity for all of us in order to build our team and strengthen our education programs in anticipation of a new Environmental Center that we hope to begin construction on in 2013.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy has been working closely for several years with the Environmental Center staff to knit our environmental education programs together. We are all using the theme of education through restoration as a guiding principle and are jointly giving folks of all ages the chance to learn about the local environment as they do meaningful, hands-on work in Pittsburgh parks. Still, before the training if someone had asked me what exactly I meant by service-learning or how that was different from community service, I would have fumbled. As a team we have been delivering our programs using well-honed instincts developed over years of doing outdoor education with youth and adults. This was our chance to build on this knowledge by examining best practices in the field of service learning, critically looking at our existing programs, and taking time to consider how to apply these ideas back home.

Now, after 40 hours of training including 8 workshops, daily work with my incredibly thoughtful peer discussion group, more daily work with my Best Practices Study Group, an icy-cold dip in a Vermont stream, walk and talks with my fellow Pittsburghers, fantastic lunches prepared with local foods by Shelburne Farms, and reflection, reflection, reflection…not only can I articulate how our environmental education programs use service-learning or why that is important – I now have concrete ideas for how to make our programs better.

My big a-ha moment for the week came during the workshop Reflection: An Essential Ingredient. We already include reflection in our High School Urban EcoStewards program through daily journaling and end-of-year presentations. This year’s students did everything from create a Tree ID game to illustrate a watercolor book on how to plant a tree. But I realized during the workshop that we could be infusing all of our programs with reflection, even our one-day volunteer events. Last year we had more than 1,500 volunteers contribute time to the parks. What if every volunteer day included time for fun and simple reflection, helping people gain a deeper understanding of the value of their work? This could be as simple posing questions for people to consider as they carry tools back from the work site such as, “What does this project mean to my community? To the park? To our rivers?” We could also ask for reflection on the day in follow-up online surveys.

The Institute also made me realize that we could do a better job revealing our educational goals to our students. Last summer we worked with 3 teachers to develop the Big Ideas for our High School Urban EcoSteward program and map the program to the PA State Standards. Why not share these directly with the kids – let them know what we thought was important for them to learn and why? Our High School students do so much fantastic work for the parks (just this past year they planted close to 300 trees), but have we dialogued enough with them on how each tree planting connects to improved water quality? We certainly present this information at the beginning of our sessions, but I’m looking forward to giving our students more room to explore their sites and develop their own observations and questions about the impact of their stewardship.

In many ways, though, the single most important part of the week was bonding with our Pittsburgh team. A few of my favorites moments: early breakfasts with Eva (also a morning person); searching the shores of Lake Champlain for the most beautiful rocks until our hands were overflowing; racing to our car through a magnificent summer downpour at the end of a day; and spending evenings huddled on lawn chairs in the cool Vermont air sharing stories of past travels around the world.

Our Pittsburgh Pack

It was these in-between times where I really got to discover more about each of our backgrounds and our visions for the future. It was great confirmation of what I already knew: we have an absolutely incredible group of environmental educators here, people who are committed to connecting people with nature and making our City even better. The workshop was the perfect chance to practice lifelong learning together, prepare us for another year of our growing environmental education programs, and reaffirm what we all believe – that giving students a chance to not just learn about our local environment but actually improve it is the key to fostering the park stewards and engaged citizens of the future.

Marijke Hecht is the Director of Education at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Please visit our website for upcoming volunteer days and updates on the development of the new Environmental Center at Frick Park. If you’re interested in making a donation to the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to help us continue our education through restoration, please visit our Donate page on our website.

The Highland Park Buggy Brigade

One of my most memorable volunteer experiences with the Parks Conservancy was a fall 2008 cleanup in Highland Park of the hillside that runs from behind the Pool Grove shelter down to Washington Boulevard.  Working with a big group of University of Pittsburgh students, we removed dozens of tires, bags and bags’ worth of cans and bottles, a utility sink, some rusted old box springs, and an enormous blue metal object that was either part of a UFO or some sort of unwanted playground equipment.

But the main theme of the day?  Shopping carts.  Lots and lots of shopping carts.

I got to repeat this hillside experience this past weekend on another volunteer day.  Erin Copeland, our senior restoration ecologist, has been working on this hillside for a while, and it’s especially become a priority now that the recently completed trails project has sought to bring more traffic through this area via trail connections.  She estimates that these hillside cleanups have been going on since 2004.  So given seven years of work, surely there couldn’t be any more buggies buried in the Highland Park hillside, right?

Volunteers and shopping carts

An intrepid volunteer with one of the day's finds.

At first, it almost looked like we wouldn’t have a lot to haul out–just some glass bottles here and there (and one large dilapidated water gun).  But after pushing aside some vines, we found a treasure trove of tires and shopping carts, some of which were buried so deeply that it took hours to free them.  Along with my friend Cat and the Parks Conservancy’s intern Carl, I spent about three hours harassing one cart with a shovel and a pickaxe until we were able to release about 3/4 of it from the ground.  It was possibly a fool’s errand (given that it turned out to be partially buried in concrete, somehow), but that’s the thing about cleaning up a park: you get really invested in what you’re doing, and you just want to see things returned to their natural state.

Cat and Carl

Cat, Carl, and our personal Everest

Elsewhere, another faction of our group who were pretty confident in their ability to balance on particularly steep terrain were hauling out what looked to be an entire wooden fence. 

Tires and fences

Walking down a hillside with tires and fences is a delicate task.

Here’s a look at some of our haul, including more than 70 tires (and one perfectly preserved baseball).

Trash haul

So after reading this, I KNOW you want to get in on some volunteer action as soon as possible, right?  Well, you’re in luck: our next volunteer day is at Cliffside Park (a really cool little space in the Hill District, at the corner of Cliff and Cassatt Streets) on Saturday, April 2.  If you can’t make that, your next opportunity is the not-to-be-missed Panther Hollow Volunteer Extravaganza on April 16, where we’ll be tackling projects not just in Schenley Park but throughout Oakland this time around.  Following that, we have days scheduled for Riverview and Frick Parks.  Get all the info and sign up here!

(Thanks to volunteer Michael Linssen for providing some of the photos!)

Spring: Before You Know It!

With all the sunshine and melting snow we’ve seen over the past few days, it’s hard not to turn your thoughts to spring, when everything in the parks will look new again and there will be tons of opportunities to get outside.  We’ve got a busy slate of events coming up starting in March, including half a dozen volunteer days and a free film presentation.  Check out some of the events on offer below, and visit for more!

Urban EcoSteward Erosion Control Training
Sunday, March 6, 9:00am – 12:00pm
Riverview Park Chapel Shelter

Keep that water from racing down the hillside!  Learn techniques for keeping valuable soil from washing away using plants and other restoration techniques.  Register at

Olmsted LegacyFree Film Screening: “The Olmsted Legacy”
Thursday, March 10, 6:30 – 8:30pm
Carnegie Museum of Art Theater

Join us for a free screening of the documentary The Olmsted Legacy.  The one-hour film examines the formation of America’s first great city parks in the late 19th century through the enigmatic eyes of Frederick Law Olmsted, visionary urban planner and landscape architect.  We’ll follow the film with a panel discussion and dessert reception.  RSVP at

Schenley Park Volunteer Day
Sunday, March 13, 9:00am – 12:00pm
Bartlett Shelter

Help the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy improve the Panther Hollow Run stream through plantings and other restoration techniques.  To sign up, visit

Highland Park Volunteer Day
Saturday, March 19, 9:00am – 1:00pm
Pool Grove Shelter on Lake Drive

Help the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy clear a garbage dump site and beautify Highland Park with native plantings.  To sign up, visit

Cliffside Park Volunteer Day
Saturday, April 2, 9:00am – 1:00pm
Corner of Cliff St. and Cassatt St. in the Hill District

Help the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy continue improvements at Cliffside Park in the Hill District.  To sign up, visit

Panther Hollow Volunteer Extravaganza
Saturday, April 16, 9:00am – 1:30pm
Meet at Schenley Plaza

Join the Parks Conservancy and many partner organizations for this watershed-wide improvement including tree planting, trash and invasive plant removal, storm drain stenciling, and more.  This year we’ll be working in the park as well as the Oakland neighborhood, and we hope to have at least 300 volunteers!  Learn more and help us meet our goal at

Riverview Park Volunteer Day
Saturday, April 30, 9:00am – 1:00pm
Riverview Park Chapel Shelter

Help the Parks Conservancy plant native trees and install deer protection to improve park health. To sign up, visit

Spring Hat Luncheon
Saturday, May 7, 11:15am – 2:15pm
Riverview Park

The Hat Luncheon is the Parks Conservancy’s premier fundraising event, combining high fashion, an elegant meal, and the beauty of Pittsburgh’s natural areas.  In addition to being the can’t-miss social event of springtime, the Hat Luncheon has brought in more than $4 million for the restoration of our city parks.   To purchase tickets, visit or call 412-682-7275.

Urban EcoSteward Early Season Invasives Training
Sunday, May 15, 9:00am – 12:00pm
Lower Frick Parking Lot off Lancaster Ave.

What’s a “good plant” and what’s a “bad plant?”  Learn how to identify and remove invasive plants early in the season.  Register at

Urban EcoSteward Tree and Shrub ID Training
Thursday, June 9, 5:30 – 7:30pm
Lower Frick Parking Lot off Lancaster Ave.

Ever wonder what that tree is that produces such pretty flowers in spring?  This is the place to come for answers!  Learn some useful tools for field identification of native and non-native trees and shrubs.  Register at

Frick Park Volunteer Day
Saturday, June 11, 9:00am – 1:00pm
Lower Frick Parking Lot off Lancaster Ave.

Join the Parks and Conservancy and the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association in this all-around workday of planting, invasive removal, and cleanup to help improve the Fern Hollow stream, a tributary to Nine Mile Run.   To sign up, visit