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Giving back: I Love My Park Day builds next generation of park stewards.

Every time Tommy Finkin visited the beach at Sunken Meadow State Park on Long Island last summer, he looked at the flowers near the entrance with pride. Just before the unofficial start of summer, Tommy and his mom, Katherine Vasilopoulos, spent the day planting flowers, building picnic tables and painting lifeguard chairs.

"All summer long my son marveled that his flowers were there. It gave him such a sense of accomplishment and ownership," says Katherine.

Tommy was one of thousands of volunteers pitching in that first Saturday in May for the annual I Love My Park Day, an event to celebrate and enhance New York's state parks and historic sites.

New York's Conservation Legacy

The creation of New York's remarkable park system dates back more than a century. It was the work of many: some prominent, and others just ordinary citizens who simply believed in the importance of parks. These friends and supporters contributed their wealth, political clout, brainpower, skills and sweat to create a park system that has brought the joys of the outdoors to hundreds of millions of New Yorkers.

This park legacy is a responsibility handed down from one generation to the next, with each generation privileged to enjoy it--but obligated, too, to pass it on in better shape than they found it.

In the spring of 2010, however, for the first time in the system's 125-year history, this legacy was in jeopardy. Fiscal troubles caused the temporary closure of some 88 parks and historic sites. The closings turned into a call to action for all who love and support our state parks. New Yorkers, led by Parks & Trails New York, a statewide park and trail advocacy organization, rallied in support of keeping parks open and, on the day before the Memorial Day weekend, the governor and legislature restored enough funding to reopen the entire system.

The threat of closure led to a renewed recognition of the importance of our state parks and historic sites. I Love My Park Day is one way New York is harnessing that support and enthusiasm--honoring our extraordinary park legacy by establishing a way for the current generation to step up and do their part.

People Love Their Parks

Since its creation in 2012, I Love My Park Day has been a tremendous success, engaging thousands of New Yorkers in celebrating and improving New York's state parks and historic sites. Volunteers from every region of the state look forward to participating in local park projects--planting trees and flowers, restoring trails and wildlife habitat, enhancing public access to park resources, and performing a variety of other site maintenance and improvement activities.

Parks & Trails New York organizes I Love My Park Day activities in cooperation with the Office of the Governor, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and local park Friends groups.

In 2015, I Love My Park Day saw more than 6,500 volunteers contribute 16,000 volunteer hours to improving New York's state parks. Those volunteers added their muscle to nearly 200 cleanup, improvement, and beautification projects at 95 state parks and historic sites. Since its inception, the event has tripled in size and continues to grow in popularity, drawing participants of every age and walk of life. Even Governor Cuomo has participated! From Girl and Boy Scout troops and service fraternities to corporate volunteer teams and garden clubs, I Love My Park Day has tapped into New Yorkers' desire to give back.

And the results are becoming more and more obvious. In addition to the usual cleanup and tree-planting projects, volunteers are helping to build bird blinds and bridges, restore historic springs, widen trails to make them more accessible, and much more.

Welcoming New Partners

Among the exciting developments initiated by I Love My Park Day are the partnerships that have emerged, both statewide and at the local level.

At Moreau Lake State Park in Saratoga County, for example, park staff and the Friends of Moreau used a grant from the Southern Adirondack Audubon Chapter to pay for lumber, as well as stain and brushes donated by a local paint store, to build a waterfowl observation blind and interpretative panels. Friends of the Old Croton Aqueduct and park staff decided to use the first I Love My Park Day to launch a new invasive vine-removal project. Since then, the Friends have made numerous new connections with other organizations, received support from local municipalities, and partnered with a local business which donated employee time and machinery to the event.

On the statewide level, New Yorkers Volunteer--a program supported by the Governor-appointed NYS Commission on National and Community Service--joined the I Love My Park Day effort as a Premier State Partner in 2013 to help recruit volunteers, promote the initiative and engage AmeriCorps members to support projects across the state. This year, the Excelsior Conservation Corps, a new AmeriCorps environmental education and stewardship program for 18- to 25-year-olds, will work on I Love My Park Day projects as part of their hands-on learning experience. Corporate partners like AT&T, Con Edison, Brookfield, and Harney & Sons Fine Teas have been invaluable in providing resources to promote the event and engage volunteers, and encouraging teams of employee volunteers to give back.

As we approach the fifth anniversary of I Love My Park Day, it seems only natural that the scope of the event would expand to welcome treasured outdoor spaces in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks managed by DEC. We're also pleased to add several national parks in celebration of the National Park Service's centennial.

As the event grows, so too do opportunities for New Yorkers to give back, strengthen bonds, build memories, and instill a sense of stewardship in the next generation.

Creating Future Stewards and Lasting Traditions

Now 15, Tommy Finkin has returned to Sunken Meadow State Park on I Love My Park Day each year and has worked with the same state parks employees for three years in a row. He has become an "old pro" and, at the 2015 event, was asked to help others who had come for the first time. He showed other volunteers how to properly construct a picnic table. According to his mom, Tommy is already talking about applying for a job with NY State Parks.

Seeing how excited his big brother and mom were about participating, Tommy's younger brother Alexios asked to skip Greek School so he could join them last year. And this year, Katherine reports her 12-year-old daughter is also already asking to join in on the fun.

She sums it up, "We receive far more from this experience than we give."

First-time Conservationist contributor Laura DiBetta is director of parks program and government relations, and frequent contributor Robin Dropkin is executive director of Parks & Trails New York.
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Author:DiBetta, Laura; Dropkin, Robin
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Apr 1, 2016
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