SFGate: S.F. parks depend on growing corps of volunteers

5 Volunteers improving trails Bernal Hill June 2013 Natural Areas

San Francisco’s parks and public lands are getting a much-needed makeover from the very people who use them, as the city’s Recreation and Park Department works to expand its volunteer program.

On any given day, dozens of people – young, old and in-between – are out in the open air, making the many small improvements that the city often doesn’t have the staff or money to accomplish.

“There’s a never-ending amount of work to be done in our parks, and volunteers help augment what our staff does,” said Phil Ginsburg, the department’s general manager. “We’re trying and trying and trying to get more people involved.”

The effort seems to be succeeding. Last year, for example, volunteers provided more than 153,000 hours of work for the department, doing everything from habitat restoration, weed-pulling and trail building to work like coaching at recreation centers and providing instruction at the Sharon Art Studio or the Harvey Milk Photo Center. The amount of volunteer service has been growing by about 5,000 to 10,000 hours each year, Ginsburg added.

“San Francisco residents live in their parks,” he said. “There are plenty of people eager and enthusiastic to go out and get their hands dirty.”

Part of the park department’s effort involves linking the volunteers with the work that needs to be done.

On a recent Saturday, Lisa Wayne, the department’s natural areas manager, and Jenny Sotelo, a city gardener, were at Corona Heights Park, giving the day’s marching orders to a half dozen volunteers.

Native plants

Sotelo had a truck with tools, equipment and seed balls germinated at the city’s Golden Gate Park nursery. The crew was going to spend a couple of hours on the highest slopes of the hill, pulling invasive weeds and replacing them with seeds of native grasses and wildflowers.

The city workers decide what needs to be done, prepare the site and ensure that the area is safe for volunteers.

“We try to make it so volunteers can put on gloves, grab a hand tool and get to work,” Wayne said.

For a number of the volunteers, many of them members of the Gay and Lesbian Sierrans conservation group, it’s not a short-term commitment. Russ Hartman and Ed Conley have been part of the monthly work parties for about eight years each, while Jim Houillion has been spending Saturdays at Corona Heights since 1993.

“I just saw something about this in the Sierrans’ newsletter back then and came by,” Houillion said. “Now I have a list of about 40 people who come by at least occasionally to work. We don’t discourage anybody.”

Community service

That number can grow when it’s time to do big jobs, like planting. That’s when the city can bring in young volunteers from middle schools and high schools who are looking to do community service projects.

Similar volunteer efforts go on throughout the city. On the same Saturday Houillion and his crew were digging into the hillside at Corona Heights, other city-led work parties were busy at Alemany Farm, Alvord Lake, Visitacion Valley and Twin Peaks.

Getting involved is simple.

“Just show up,” said Ginsburg.

But the work and even the park improvements aren’t the most important part of the volunteer program, he added.

The volunteer efforts “are a gateway to park stewardship,” Ginsburg said. “We want people to feel they have a personal stake in the parks and in keeping them clean, safe and friendly.”

That stewardship effort starts young. The park department already has programs with 45 schools, combining environmental education and various types of volunteer work.

But for most of the people who show up at the various park projects, the efforts are anything but work.

For the past four years, volunteers from the Golden Gate Audubon Society have been spending a couple of hours on the third Saturday of every month at the Bison Paddock in Golden Gate Park, doing habitat restoration for the white crown sparrow and other native birds. They’re typically joined by folks from schools, businesses and other groups looking for a chance to spend a day helping out.

“It’s an opportunity for people of all different ages and backgrounds to meet each other and do something fun,” said Noreen Weeden of San Francisco, volunteer coordinator for the society. “When you can put a plant in the ground and come back and see it doing well, it’s an amazing feeling.”

Learn more

Individuals or groups interesting in volunteering for Recreation and Park programs can call the department at (415) 831-6330 or send an e-mail to recparkvolunteer@sfgov.org. More information is available at the department’s website, https://sfrecpark.org/support-your-parks/volunteer-program.

John Wildermuth is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail:jwildermuth@sfchronicle.com