Over three months, the park leaders-in-training will learn how to plan events, fundraise, organize a volunteer day, work with elected officials and get neighbors involved. (Photo courtesy of Park Pride.)

By Hannah E. Jones

This fall, 12 residents are going to hone their leadership skills through Park Pride’s new Park Stewardship Academy (PSA). The nonprofit just selected the inaugural cohort that will undergo a three-month educational and skill-building program to learn how to better activate their respective parks through community events, programs and volunteer opportunities.

Park Pride is a nonprofit that works with community members and local leaders to improve parks and greenspaces in the City of Atlanta and DeKalb County. The PSA is linked to the nonprofit’s current $12.8 million campaign, with a focus on community-led park improvements, building organizational capacity and creating new green advocates — which is where the new program comes in.

Over three months, the park leaders-in-training will learn how to plan events, fundraise, organize a volunteer day, work with elected officials and get neighbors involved. They can also explore areas of special interest like urban ecology, health and wellness and more. 

“It’s really designed to facilitate activation and we use that [word] sort of loosely,” said Director of Education Eli Dickerson, who is leading the initiative. “That could be activation in the form of volunteer projects, it could be ecological restoration in the park, it could be fundraising — anything that activates the park in terms of getting people out and enjoying their green space.”

The Park Stewardship Academy 2023 cohort includes:

  • Luis Indacochea, Glen Emerald Park
  • Joanna Powell, Lillian Cooper Shepherd Park
  • Barbara Mobley, Shoal Creek III Park
  • Donna Stephens, English Park
  • Taryn Arbeiter, Chosewood Park
  • Carrie Salvary, Rodney Cook, Sr. Park
  • Chinelo Arinze, Cascade Springs Nature Preserve
  • Coreen Dent, Empire Park and Harper Park
  • Mary Kilgo, Tanyard Creek Park
  • Micah Coleman, Lenox-Wildwood Parks
  • Ursula Kendall, Deerwood Park
  • Gwendolyn Stegall, Hairston Park

In this first year, Dickerson and the team plan to bounce ideas off the first cohort and take cues on what the group is most interested in pursuing.

“We’re going to have a big focus on communication, equity and exploring together as a group to see what the possibilities are and what the community wants,” Dickerson added. 

An Earth Day clean-up event with the Friends of Hairston Park group. (Photo courtesy of Park Pride.)

For example, Mary Kilgo with Tanyard Creek Park is most interested in learning about urban ecology and maintaining natural spaces. 

“Atlanta has a lot of maintained park space for walking and playing, but many natural areas are overgrown with ivy and other invasives,” Kilgo told SaportaReport. “Being recently retired, I applied for the Park Stewardship program with Park Pride because I would like to network and learn more about how to engage people to improve these spaces.” 

She continued: “My project is with an area in Tanyard Creek Park on The Beltline that the neighbors call Cathedral Woods. This is riparian old growth forest, and we’ve already found trillium and black-stemmed spleenwort hiding under the ivy and wintercreeper. We want to restore this area, create a nature trail, and provide educational information for people to learn about invasive versus native species.”

PSA is crafted to work alongside Park Pride’s Friends of the Park (FoP) groups. These FoP groups are resident-led, and the nonprofit provides resources to improve park infrastructure through crafting a master plan, fundraising, volunteer management, capacity-building workshops, free tool rentals and more. In 2022, the organization had over 150 FoP groups. 

By requiring each participant to be part of both programs, the residents and their parks get a fuller scope of support — including both physical improvements and activation efforts. Thirty-six park advocates applied to join the new program and 12 were selected.

The program will include both in-person and virtual seminars, community outreach and guest expert speakers. If the participants complete three-fourths of the work, they will graduate in December. Upon completion, the graduates will receive a $2,500 award that will go directly to their FoP account, earmarked for activation. 

“If we were talking about capital improvements like building a new playground, $2,500 is not going to go very far,” Dickerson said. “In terms of activation, like hiring a guest educator from the Audubon Society to come in and lead a bird walk, $2,500 is going to go a very long way.”

Moving forward, the team plans to host the PSA annually. At some point, Dickerson envisions potentially offering themed cohorts with a focus on specific topics. For now, though, he hopes that the PSA will help park advocates connect, strengthen their skills and find ways to effectively engage their neighbors.

“I hope we have a good dialogue together, I hope we form bonds internally and I hope we make outside connections,” Dickerson said.

To learn more about Park Pride’s latest initiative, the Park Stewardship Academy, click here.

Hannah Jones is a Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for...

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