When you think of the words National Park, the first things that come to mind are peaceful, natural, remote: a mountaintop, a deep forest, a vast prairie far from most people’s daily lives where volunteers may have to drive an hour or more to support their park. But it’s a bit different here at Gateway NRA, where we have a resource most parks don’t get to utilize: all 8 million New York City residents, rushing around on the crowded subways, most of them blissfully unaware of the natural gem that sits right under their noses.
I never expected that when I started work at the National Park Service I would be located in the busiest urban center in the United States. I didn’t even know there was a national park in NYC. And as I’ve learned this summer, although there are plenty of community members, organizations and companies that love to come volunteer at Gateway, most New Yorkers are in the same boat I was in. They have no idea.
This fact first sunk in to me early this summer as I chatted with wackily dressed people at NYC Pride, most of whom were shocked that you can actually camp at a campground within city limits. But that is not to say we have a dearth of volunteers: in contrast, we often have far too many things going on to be able to stop and take a breath. A quick recap: In addition to Pride, we have tabled at several fairs centered on health, volunteerism, veterans, and Coast Guard members, challenging them to our prize wheel game where they have to guess which National Park site of New York Harbor is pictured (everyone guesses Statue of Liberty right- somehow no one guesses Hamilton Grange).
We also had the pleasure of hosting various SCA crews and a Partners in Parks program with a local college, showing a group of honors students from around the country different sites at Gateway and NY Harbor, taking them kayaking, and cleaning up a beach. But my favorite groups this summer were on Staten Island, and included a Summer Youth Employment Program with high school students who cleaned up our beaches and helped remove invasive plants, as well as an adult special needs program who have been incredible at helping us weed our battery trail at Fort Wadsworth.
You might think everything would calm a bit now that summer is winding down—but if you do, you don’t know New Yorkers. The start of the school year means a renewed effort at outreach in fourth grade classrooms for Every Kid In A Park. The start of September means the beginning of the International Coastal Cleanup months, which are already filling up. And we have a week of volunteer-supported Fall Planting at our Wildlife Refuge (the only wildlife refuge accessible by subway!)
It’s a bit daunting to be tasked with educating and recruiting the whole of New York City to come out and volunteer at their national park. But that makes my job here a truly unique challenge, and running around this fall and winter is sure to be as interesting and crazy as summer in the big city.