Mobilizing Ann Arborites to care for their parks
by Cynthia Furlong Reynolds
From the July, 2021 issue
On a picture-perfect morning in June, bees buzz, birds nest, and a massive lawn mower gives the Wurster Park grass a buzz cut as Melissa Schacht, coordinator of the city's Adopt-a-Park program, surveys the thick blanket of wood chips perfectly distributed under the park's play structures.
"This is an example of the way our volunteers help maintain our city parks," she says with satisfaction. "Our neighborhood friends alerted us about the need for a new surface here, so a Parks and Rec crew delivered a pile of wood chips, and park volunteers arrived to spread them." Volunteers in eleven other parks completed the same job the same week. A sand volleyball league also laid a new surface at Wurster's court and erected a replacement net Parks and Rec provided.
Today, Andy Hayes, a new park employee, is replacing the seat on an aging park bench. In the distance, park volunteer and neighbor Rita Mitchell surveys Wurster Park's entrance garden on Madison St. Then she sets to work weeding the plot, composed entirely of Michigan native plants.
The Adopt-a-Park program dates back to the 2008 recession, when the city staff was shrinking and needed volunteers to fill some of the gaps. In 2011, it was folded into GIVE 365, a new program that supervises all volunteer programs for the city's outdoor spaces. Schacht, thirty, has been a seasonal employee since 2016.
Schacht grew up in Westland, graduated from Grand Valley with a bachelor's degree in natural resources management, and worked for the Ottawa County park system before taking the job here. "I've always had a passion for nature and environmental conservation stewardship," she explains. "When I started at Adopt-a-Park, my eyes were opened to the impact a single individual or a small group can have on a park enjoyed by an entire city. This program gives people opportunities to become more engaged in their community and with their neighbors, to learn about Ann Arbor's outdoor features, and to have a
hand in caring for their environment."
Shortly after Schacht was named coordinator of Adopt-a-Park, she enrolled in the Michigan State University Extension Service master gardener program. "Many of our volunteers are also master gardeners, but they certainly don't have to be. We will educate and offer training in anything they want to do," she says.
At its peak in 2019, 9,000 residents participated in GIVE 365 programs. Last year, unsurprisingly, Covid caused a serious decline. But when the 2021 crop of weeds started appearing in April and early May, volunteers also sprang up. Several hundred of them work in one or more parks, coordinating their efforts with Schacht, whose primary goal is to forge bonds between Ann Arborites and the city's 161 parks.
"Adopters help their chosen park look beautiful and healthy-with, we hope, the added bonus of having fun as they work with their neighbors and coworkers," she says.
They're also the eyes, ears, and advocates for their parks. They report broken signs, benches that need replacement, tree limbs that have fallen during storms, mulch requirements, and other concerns. When a work party is scheduled in the spring, Schacht provides up to $200 to pay for plantings, as well as tools, environmental information, and gardening advice.
Park adopters range from individuals, families, and neighborhood associations to businesses and student and civic organizations like the Lions Club, which maintains a sensory garden at Liberty Plaza for people with visual impairments. Collectively, they put in 200 to 600 hours per month planning, planting, and maintaining flower beds; caring for trails and paths; removing litter; maintaining park structures; weeding; mulching; and planting and watering trees. "Wurster Park has five regular and very committed volunteers in our Adopt-a-Park program, as well as others who assist-but not every park has been adopted yet," Schacht says.
Schacht not only coordinates the volunteers, she works alongside them. "I can't even begin to estimate how many hundreds of thousands of weeds I've pulled with our volunteers," she says, smiling. Despite her love of gardening, she doesn't have a garden of her own-she's so busy during the summer that there's "no time!"
During her two-month winter layoff, she travels and explores creative pursuits, including painting, sewing, embroidery, and weaving. "Other than that, I love spending time outdoors of course, and venturing to parks outside of Ann Arbor.
Schacht is also the go-between when people suggest improvements in their parks. "I'll review the proposals and, if necessary, send them on to the right people in the Parks and Rec department." Some, such as memorial trees, can be approved in a matter of weeks. Long-term proposals, like the edible community garden on the north side may take years and involve park architects.
A memorial close to her heart is the former Rose White Park, near the Stadium Blvd. bridge. Last October, city council voted to change the name to honor the late Graydon Krapohl, who served both as a councilmember and park commissioner.
"He was a really active Adopt-a-Park volunteer who was dedicated to his neighborhood, and he was a wonderful man," Schacht says. "He coordinated workdays for this park, and he made them fun." A plaque at the renamed Graydon Park recognizes his many contributions and achievements. "His friends and neighbors all talk about him whenever we work together there."
In her rare downtime, Schacht is working on the city's website, listing the history and features for every one of the city's parks.
"I have the perfect job," she says. "Working in and for parks is wonderfully therapeutic. I have the perfect mix of administrative work, emails, new relationships, and constant reasons to visit a park during the course of a day.
"This is such a great way to meet people and bring people together. And there's nothing better for someone's spirits than working outdoors on a beautiful day, to make some corner of the world more beautiful."
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