Forest Park Forever Loves Its Volunteers!

The week of April 7-13, 2019, is National Volunteer Week, and no one will be celebrating more this year than Forest Park Forever Volunteer Manager Michele Blanke.

In 2018 alone, more than 1,350 volunteers gave more than 13,000 hours of their time to the Park, a value of $318,000. For Blanke, those hours are priceless.

“Without volunteers, we can’t do what we do,” Blanke says. “Making Forest Park everything it can be takes a lot of hands. Forest Park Forever can only partner with the City to restore, maintain and conserve the Park because of our wonderful volunteers.”

Many Forest Park Forever volunteers are retired, and they remember what the Park was like before Forest Park Forever formed in 1986.

“Because it’s a relatively young organization, Forest Park Forever is always finding new ways to engage volunteers,” Blanke adds.

Indeed, Forest Park Forever offers a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for people wanting to work indoors, outdoors, or both.

Carol Short has been working in the Forest Park Forever office every Wednesday for 14 years. She tracks the donations people make to the Park as tributes or memorials to loved ones.

“Forest Park is such a jewel for St. Louis,” Short says. “I just want to help any way I can. It’s amazing the amount of money Forest Park Forever raises and the work that they do. I enjoy reading the personal notes that come in with the gifts. It makes me happy that the Park is so memorable for people.”

Barb McKay enjoys helping visitors make new Forest Park memories — or discover it for the first time — as a greeter in the Visitor Center.

“I remember a gentleman from Wisconsin who had been coming to St. Louis on business trips for 26 years, but he had never come to the Park!” she says. “He was astounded at its size and all there is for people to do, and all for free.”

Because McKay’s volunteer position reaches everyone who comes to the Park, she shares her duties between Forest Park Forever and Explore St. Louis, a regional commission that promotes St. Louis as a convention and leisure travel destination.

“Forest Park Forever partners with organizations like Explore St. Louis and all of the institutions in the Park to share volunteers and best practices,” says Forest Park Forever Director of Community Engagement Anne Grossmann. “All of the institutions’ volunteer coordinators meet quarterly.”

Forest Park also offers unique volunteer opportunities for local corporations. Companies like Bayer, Centene, Mastercard, Nielsen and Twain Financial and others have all had service days at the Park for their employees.

“We have a niche because many nonprofits have limited capacity for volunteers,” Grossmann says. “We are well connected in the volunteer community, so we can help connect companies to other groups if we need to — though there is always plenty to do out in the Park!”

Volunteers Mary and Tom DeBenedetti can attest to that. Tom has volunteered on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for the past four years, while Mary commits one day a week to the Park among numerous other volunteer engagements.

Tom, a retired physical therapist, enjoys working with his hands in the Nature Reserve and throughout the Park.

“I love being outside and socializing with the other volunteers,” he says. “You have to keep yourself active. This is a fun way to do that and give back to the community.”

Mary is retired from Washington University. She agrees that being outdoors, rather than an indoor office, is beneficial.

“It’s exciting to know that you are effecting change in the Park,” she says as she clears brush in the Nature Reserve. “It feels good physically to come out and work your muscles.”

Blanke and Grossmann say that Forest Park Forever’s volunteers are highly motivated, highly dedicated and driven by their love of the Park — and their need to share that love with others.

“Our volunteers are by far our best recruiters,” says Grossmann, mentioning a growing group of friends from Des Peres who can often be found working near the Jewish Tercentenary Monument on the east side of the Park.  “As their friends from the neighborhood retire, they invite them to join their group in Forest Park.”

“Time is the bane of retirement,” says new volunteer Bruce Johnston. He says that planting hickory, oaks and other tree species in the Park is the perfect way to “get off my duff.”

“I’ll never see the benefit of all the saplings I have planted, but future generations will,” Johnston says. “I can’t think of a better way to spend my time.”

Looking for a volunteer opportunity in Forest Park? Check out our Volunteer page to register for this year’s Spring Savanna Native Plug Planting Project on Saturday, April 13, 2019!

VolunteersTim Fox