Behind the scenes of a Park Champions first workday

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Philip Oakley Otto, Southern California Field Consultant

California has 280 beautiful state parks, though many need consistent, sustainable volunteer to support to help maintain that beauty. Our Park Champions program was created to help with just that. Last year we hosted workdays in over 50 state parks across California, and this past year we were thrilled to be able to add new parks to that list!

One of these parks was Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. Thanks to the artful planning by park staff and the energy and enthusiasm of our volunteers, we were able to complete over 140 feet of fencing, exceeding expectations and achieving a marked visual impact at the McCoy House. We caught up with Philip Oakley Otto, our Southern California Field Consultant, to talk to him about first workdays and what goes into bringing a new park into the Park Champions program.

Could you describe the process of getting a park to sign on for a Park Champions workday?

Philip: A huge part of Park Champions’ success lies in our relationships with the Department of Parks and Recreation staff. After some phone calls and emails with our park contact, I’ll schedule a site visit with them to get to know the park and see the projects they’ve identified as possible Park Champions undertakings.

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Volunteers with park staff at the first workday at South Carlsbad State Beach on August 11, 2018

What are your responsibilities around a first workday?

Philip: I work with park staff and volunteer Core Leaders to develop the workplan and order any supplies, tools or rentals needed for the workday. I like to attend the first workday at a new park, but thanks to the amazing support of our Core Leader superstars, I’m often playing more of a supporting role, learning about the individual park dynamics and thinking about any areas of improvement for future workdays.

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Core Leader Ken assisting volunteers at the first workday at Asilomar State Beach on May 24, 2018

Do first workdays differ in any way from established workdays?

Philip: We have some amazing super regular volunteers who are always excited to visit and volunteer in a “new” park. There’s definitely some extra excitement and talking in the morning kickoff as the workday team and I make acknowledgements and introduce the park and project. There are also typically first-time volunteers for whom the new park afforded the discovery of the Park Champions volunteer program.

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One of our youngest volunteers at the first workday for Old Town San Diego State Historic Park on August 4, 2018


Why do you believe it is important to have new parks join the Park Champions program?

Philip: We have 280 State Parks in California. Park Champions is active in over 50 of those, but there are still many more that could benefit from the help of our hardworking and enthusiastic Park Champion volunteers.

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Volunteers at the first Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park workday

What has been your favorite first workday you have participated in?

Philip: Picacho State Recreation area, a remote park on the Colorado river (closest town: Yuma, AZ) has a special place in my heart. As part of the site visit to plan the first workday, the ranger took us up river in a pontoon boat which provided an ideal vantage for viewing the extent of the park, much of which is only (easily) assessable from the river. A few miles up, we got out and floated back down to the campground. Our first workday weekend, which focused on campground maintenance and fencing installation, included a sunset hike through the rocky terrain that reminded me of Joshua Tree but with epic views of the Colorado river and multiple close sightings of wild burros.

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Volunteers at the first workday for Picacho State Recreation Area

Interested in joining the excitement of a Park Champions workday? Click here to register for an upcoming workday near you!

Core Leader Q&A: Charlotte Bergheimer

Quite simply, Park Champions volunteer workdays would not be possible without our dedicated Core Leaders, individuals from across California who make sure our volunteer workdays run smoothly. Charlotte has been active in the Park Champions program since 2015 and is one of these amazing Core leaders. To help celebrate Park Champions Appreciation Month, Charlotte recently answered a few questions on why she became a Park Champions volunteer and her journey to becoming a core leader.

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Charlotte decorating bee “hotels” at Los Angeles State Historic Park

How did you first get involved with Park Champions?

I first volunteered with Park Champions in late 2015 at Rio de Los Angeles State Park. I was working remotely and hoped to find an opportunity to meet people and spend time outside. I found Park Champions online and took a chance, only to discover a whole new community that welcomed me with open arms. Everyone I met was friendly, and the staff and volunteers that coordinated the workday were extremely encouraging. I was instantly gratified by my tangible contribution to the park through planting native plants and removing invasive species. The work was challenging at times and easier at others, and I learned so much throughout the day. Not to mention great food after a long morning of work! I knew right away that I’d be returning.

Why did you decide to be Core Leader?

After only a few workdays with Park Champions, I was eager to take on more responsibility. By nature I enjoy helping and encouraging others, and that was how I perceived the role of the Core Leader based on my interactions with them. I soon participated in multiple day-long events and trainings available to Park Champion volunteers, which made it clear to me that I was willing to take on the additional responsibilities the Core Leader role entailed. Becoming a Core Leader has helped me engage with the park and its visitors on a deeper level.

Why are state parks important to you?

California’s prerogative of preserving the natural beauty of our state is one of the things that makes living here so great. Parks are a vital part of the communities they’re in, and I personally have found lots of joy and fulfillment through my time spent in state parks. Through Park Champions, I have taken a sense of ownership over the parks’ well-being and am proud to offer my sweat-equity to the efforts that keep these parks viable.

What’s a great memory you have volunteering in State Parks?

While leading a smaller group during a work day at Rio De Los Angeles State Park, we were tasked with removing large fennel plants from an area with dense vegetation. As we navigated through the area we saw rabbits and coyotes, butterflies and birds, new growth and very mature native plants. It was a great representation of the unique nature available to visitors of urban state parks.

Do you have a favorite park to volunteer in?

Los Angeles State Historic Park, as I have been volunteering there since before it was reopened to the public. I am on a first name basis with park rangers and staff, as well as local residents and advocates that support park activities. It feels like home.

Why are Park Champion volunteers important to California state parks?

Park Champion volunteers help promote the parks while assisting park staff in ongoing maintenance and care of the area, fostering a sense of investment in the parks. The program emulates the values of California as a whole, while we as a state-wide community continue to strive for a home that embraces its natural resources and beauty.

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Charlotte with fellow Core Leader Holly. You can read Holly’s story here.

Do you have any words of thanks you would like to share with Park Champions?

Park Champions has provided me with a sense of community that I haven’t found anywhere else. Volunteers come from all walks of life with the same common goal of improving the earth while encouraging others to engage with and appreciate the process. I have made life-long friends through this program, and hope to continue to grow with the program. I have now attended two annual Park Advocacy Days in Sacramento on behalf of Park Champions, and continue to find new parks to volunteer at with their own group of amazing volunteers. I am grateful for the opportunities Park Champions has provided me to connect with others who love state parks as much as I do.

Anything else about why the Park Champions program is important or why you love it that we didn’t touch on that you think I or our supporters should know?
If you haven’t already, be sure to invite a friend to your next workday. It’s the greatest feeling to be able to share the joy and accomplishment you feel after a hard day’s work in your favorite state park.

This June, we’re celebrating the hundreds of enthusiastic volunteers from across California that tirelessly donate their time and work to improve the quality, safety and preservation of our state parks with Park Champions Appreciation Month! Follow the celebration on social media with the hashtag #ParkChampions and read more blog posts here.