“It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Visitors to the Japanese Tea Garden, seeking a dose of weekend sunshine and lush gardens, stopped to investigate the ruckus causing the cats to scatter from their adopted bamboo thicket. The sign posted at the garden entrance fed their curiosity: “Volunteers at Work.” On this early March Saturday morning 25 volunteers from Zachary Construction Corporation and the Hilton Palacio del Rio were hard at work, beautifying one of San Antonio’s most treasured landmarks.
One group, nicknamed Team Panda, ferociously sawed away at the invasive wall of towering bamboo. Another group wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Building a better future, one volunteer at a time,” was busy painting the rusting barbecue grills along the main drag of the park. The group’s energizing laughter reverberated over the tooting of the park train.
Irene Garcia, a volunteer with the Hilton group, looked over her shoulder as a crowd crawled off the miniature train. “When you see people working in the park, you realize that volunteers are who make the park nice, so then you are more inclined to keep the park nice,” she observes.
San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department relies on the willing hands of volunteers to keep the City’s 243 parks beautiful and open for the public to enjoy. With more than 4,000 volunteers, and 200-plus work projects throughout the year, the Parks Department is able to raise stewardship levels across San Antonio. Projects range from tree planting, gardening and graffiti abatement to litter pickup and educational outreach opportunities. Volunteers come from all backgrounds and range from children to senior citizens.
I have lived in San Antonio for the past three years while attending Trinity University, yet I never felt much of a connection with the San Antonio community until I began my an internship with Parks and Recreation Department’s Volunteer Services in January. There is something about volunteering in the parks that has provided me with the sense of home in San Antonio that I have sought for the past three years.
I don’t know if it is the camaraderie I have built with the other San Antonians working beside me in the dirt, the extreme satisfaction of devoting some of my own hard work into an area of the community that I feel passionate about, or the instant gratification of seeing the parks transform into something more beautiful before my eyes. Volunteering in the park has tied me to this city in a way that nothing else has.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the chance to interact with San Antonio, both through the parks and the volunteers, fellow San Antonio citizens who have a special place in their heart forth city’s beautiful parks.
It is this sense of stewardship that often drives people to volunteer. “If there is no heart in it, then you don’t really have a volunteer,” Garcia tells me as she finishes scrubbing the rust off of a barbecue grill. She wipes some sweat from her brow and laughs. “Why go to the gym and exercise, when you can put it back in the community?”
Stewardship is contagious; it can motivate volunteers to tend their own ailing gardens as it did for Karrie Price. Volunteering in parks such as the Tea Garden is particularly special for Karrie, who remembers visiting the same garden with her own mother. Now, as a grandmother, Karrie can still visit the beautiful flowers and even help make room for more to bloom.
I experience a rewarding sensation when I hear “this is a beautiful place” from passing visitors and know that I had a part in their enjoyment. Indeed, the Parks employees often have a difficult time pulling volunteers from the work to hydrate. Volunteer groups tend to build an infectious energetic momentum. One man shouts as he pulls weeds, “I’m on a roll, I want to keep yanking these babies down!”
I saw this same vigor just a couple of weeks before, when I helped create a butterfly garden at Crockett Park. As more than 100 volunteers went to work on the garden, I listened in on the friendships that were budding alongside the Blue Plumbago flowers. This spectacle of volunteers also attracted members of the community. Several park users stopped by on their lunch breaks or walks to ask what the crowd was doing. A few even asked if there was any way that they could pitch in too.
I was touched by the community interest in this project and the immediate interest everyone took in the volunteers’ work. Instant gratification. Even before the garden was complete, the community was already taking advantage of the new park. A little girl abandoned the slides of the playground to wander over to the newly planted flowers, looking up curiously at her dad, who explained that it was a new home for the butterflies. Already the beautification was enriching someone’s experience and encouraging interest in the community—and possibly even the environment.
In the academic sphere, it is often easy to get weighed down with the problems of society, especially in regards to the environment. While I am not arguing that ignorance is bliss, I do think that it is necessary to step away from the hard facts and into the community. By doing this, I was able to receive a revitalizing sense of hope for what is to come.
Volunteering with Parks and Recreation has given me the opportunity to realize that, yes, San Antonio is facing all the social and environmental issues that are consequences of rapid urban growth, but that the city also has a lot of fight in it. The city has dreams—as most all of us do—of a community that understands the ecology of San Antonio and the importance of maintaining and respecting our public parks. But the city also has a secret arsenal: a volunteer force with the heart and strength to accomplish these goals.
Tori Carey is a senior environmental studies major and creative writing minor at Trinity University. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she will begin the Masters of Arts in Teaching program at Trinity this summer. Outside of the classroom she enjoys traipsing through the city and wilderness, tasting crazy delicacies, and tapping in to her inner yogi.