Volunteers ensure that the grass is always greener

Organizations match motivated community members to parks and recreation work opportunities across Allentown

By Sydney Coplin

Throughout the peak months of March to October, Beverly Mosser is constantly picking up her office phone, with an enthusiastic Allentown community member on the other end of the line, awaiting a volunteering assignment.

As the Operations Manager of Friends of the Allentown Parks, a non-profit volunteer organization focused on parks and recreation, Mosser’s team views the roster of the over 49 public parks and playgrounds in the city of Allentown and appropriately assigns community members to a location.

Friends of the Allentown Parks’ success is indicated in a post on their website. In 2017, they were especially committed to organizing park cleanups, nature conservation and increasing engagement amongst volunteers.

Nearly two years later, the program has continued to expand alongside the increased amount of park projects.

Some projects that are currently in the works include a pond and park landscape redesign in Trexler Park, renovations to West Park and a full rehabilitation of Bogert’s Covered Bridge.

“We’ve acquired a lot more land, more green space,” explained Karen El Chaar, Director of the Allentown Parks and Recreation Department and Past Executive Director of Friends of the Allentown Parks.

With an increasing amount of parks in size, as well as the addition of features ranging from playgrounds to pools since the organization's founding in 2008, volunteers are exposed to a wide range of opportunities, and Friends of the Allentown Parks matches volunteers to these green spaces.

“We usually would give the families parks that had playgrounds so that if the kids got tired, they could go play on the playground,” said Mosser. She also noted that they tend to place families in parks near a stream, since kids enjoy collecting tadpoles.

Volunteers also come from corporate groups, schools, cub scout groups and other individuals who call-in. All of the necessary equipment for park clean-up is provided by the organization, which eliminates any financial or other resource restrictions for volunteering. “It is all donation-based,” said Mosser. “Trash bags, gloves and the safety vests...It makes it easier for [the volunteers]. When we get [the materials] back, we wash them ourselves, and try to recycle them if they’re not too bad.”

The organization also sponsors various programs throughout the year. Some of their most prominent programs include the Cherry Blossom Festival, Remembrance Trees, which is a tree-planting program, Adopt-A-Flowerbed and a dog park event called Woofstock, which just had it’s eighth annual event this past August.

 Dr. Kimberly Heiman, Professor of Biology and Sustainability Studies at Muhlenberg College, shared how she connects her students to similar opportunities for community engagement within the parks. “For years, I have collaborated with Friends of the Allentown Parks through one of my classes called Local Sustainability,” she explained. “It’s a project-based course where we take big picture, real-world sustainability challenges that are globally relevant, and we apply them or look at examples of how they play out in our local communities.”

Some of the projects that Dr. Heiman’s students have worked on include designing restoration plans for the island in Lake Muhlenberg, invasive species management and research and also creating an information kiosk in Cedar Crest Park pertaining to a bird habitat. Dr. Heiman was on the board of Friends of the Allentown Parks for 10 years, and she attributes her relationship with the organization for these opportunities for students.

“I like being able to figure out how to provide those opportunities for students because I do think it makes the learning stronger,” she stated. “I would hope they feel like they’re part of the solution, because there’s so many times in this day and age when you just feel like there’s nothing you can do and the problems are too big. But if we break them down into small pieces, there actually are solutions.

Patrick Hunt, Program Coordinator for Delaware & Lehigh (D+L) National Heritage Corridor, also explained how his organization helps to direct volunteers to different solutions-based projects, particularly surrounding trails. “At the D+L, we do have a lot of volunteer programs, and our main volunteer program is ‘Trail Tenders,’” said Hunt. “We find a section of our trail...and every month more or less, sometimes multiple times a month, we either take corporate groups out or we do a call for non-corporate groups and we go and clean up the trail.”

“I think we get a lot of corporate groups that want to give back and also give back to the community in a way that is fun and easier than other things,” added Hunt.

These trail clean-ups consist of cleaning up trash, mowing grass and picking up tree limbs, according to Hunt. Some other larger projects include building bridges, and repaving as well as creating new trails.

There is a sense of collaboration between these volunteering organizations and the city of Allentown.

“Parks are one of those public spaces that could potentially be at risk from the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ where nobody owns the space, so people treat it poorly, or abuse it in some way,” Dr. Heiman said. “Parks should be part of the common good of whatever community they’re placed in.”

Dr. Heiman also added that the government has a responsibility to maintain these spaces. The Allentown Parks Department has a professional obligation to preserve these parks. They are committed to managing the parks, as well as promoting recreation for the overall community. Community members also feel that they have a certain moral obligation and inherent responsibility to maintain the parks and recreation areas too.

“I think what motivates people generally is that they want to give back to the trail,” said Hunt. “It makes them feel good, working with their hands; it’s a satisfying feeling for some people.” Mosser shares a similar sentiment of motivation that volunteers of Friends of the Allentown Parks possess. “It’s a learning experience for them,” said Mosser. “It benefits the parks... the parks are beautiful, and a lot of people do appreciate them. They’re more than willing to come spend a few hours volunteering.”

Sydney Coplin is a Media & Communication major at Muhlenberg College. Outside of her coursework, she is involved with her student broadcasting organization, Muhlenberg Broadcasting Channel, as well as an editor for The Muhlenberg Weekly newspaper. After studying land ethic all semester long in her Environmental Journalism class, she was inspired to study the notion of community responsibility, and what motivates people to participate in preserving their local parks. When Sydney is not working on an article or project for school, she is most likely found watching YouTube videos and eating sushi.