By Ellen Cans
There is always a bright spot to every storm. The COVID-19 pandemic brought about many undesirable things, but there were also a few silver linings. Among them was the surge in volunteers that began last summer. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, people who starting working from home and people who had more time because they had been laid off, started spending more time at local parks, and then decided to give back by volunteering their time.
Casey Chamberlain, director of the Hunters Point Parks Conservancy in Queens, said last summer scores of volunteers came out to lend a hand. They took on jobs including weeding, cleaning up and planting flower bulbs. He says the help was well appreciated as the pandemic had brought on heavy cuts in public funding for city parks. As per the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, some 1,600 operations staff or seasonal maintenance workers were cut last summer, reducing the number of workers from 2,600 to 1,000. Simultaneously, the parks were more active than usual as people sought outdoor space. Many feared that park conditions would return to the dilapidated state they had been in the 1970s. Unexpectedly, New York locals came to the rescue. New Yorkers have been known to rise to the occasion, and after the pandemic hit, people started donating their time and money to parks—sometimes at record levels.
Merritt Birnbaum, executive director of the nonprofit the Friends of Governors Island, which runs volunteering and fundraising programs for the 172-acre green space, also raved about the surge in volunteers. A record 200 people completed 3,500 hours of volunteer work last year at Governors Island—up 35 percent since 2019. “It was like having five full-time staff working 40 hours a week,” she says, adding it was a tremendous help throughout the pandemic.
“The pandemic had a silver lining for us, people are more aware of how important parks are,” says Heather Lubov, executive director of the City Parks Foundation. The organization supports over 600 volunteer groups in 400 parks across New York City.
As per the WSJ, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park also saw an outpouring of contributions in time and money. The park enjoyed a 142% increase in new volunteers, to 1,600, according to the Prospect Park Alliance. The park also saw individual donations double to $2.4 million between July 2020 and March 2021.
The city budget for the coming fiscal year has proposed reversing the funding cuts for city parks, but for now the volunteers are still coming in strong.