As we start to see green growth appear around Washington Square Park, one of the best seasons is upon us…not spring, volunteer season! Every year the Conservancy welcomes back returners and ushers in a new group of enthusiastic volunteers ready to get to work on behalf of their beloved Park. There are so many different ways to give back in WSP, and this year we’re excited to offer even more opportunities to pitch in.
Since its inception, a core part of the Conservancy’s mission has been to recruit and deploy enthusiastic volunteers in service to this vibrant community space. What began over a decade ago with occasional community days has now blossomed into a thriving and diverse volunteer program. As the Park has needed more, and the community has gotten increasingly involved and engaged in giving back to the Park, WSPC has tailored the available opportunities to provide as many different and exciting ways to contribute as people want to take on. For a space with ever-changing needs like Washington Square, being innovative and responsive is essential to the success of our volunteer program, which has evolved substantially since the beginning.
It started simply, with “It’s My Park! Day,” a roughly once-a-month opportunity for anyone in the community that wanted to pitch in for a few hours. It was one of the early projects of the Conservancy’s first (and at the time, only) staffer, the executive director/Park Administrator. Unsurprisingly, the days were a hit and the community quickly showed a deep interest in giving back to Washington Square Park. Neighbors didn’t shy away from raking leaves, picking up trash, or planting bulbs. And now the Community Clean Up days are a highlight of the Conservancy’s spring, summer and fall lineup. Beginning in April with a special Earth Day Clean Up (sign ups open in early April), join us on the second Saturday of each month to get to work.
Not long after the clean ups took shape it became apparent that a number of volunteers were itching for more rigorous and regular gardening opportunities than the once-a-month schedule was providing. And so the Conservancy’s first committed program was born: the Wednesday Weeders. Unlike the Clean Ups (which are a 60-minute one-time commitment) the Weeders complete a required application and orientation process which allows them to work side-by-side with the Park’s gardeners for a 6-month volunteering season. Years later and the Weeders are still hard at work in the Park and have become an integral part of the maintenance of the Park’s landscapes. What started as just a handful of eager urban gardeners has grown into 23 today, including 4 stalwarts from the original cohort!
While the first committed program grew organically from the community clean up days, the second was a stroke of inspiration…that required a bit more work. In a space with as much vibrant life as WSP it made sense to deploy volunteers out into the Park to interact with the community. There’s so much to learn about Washington Square, from history and horticulture to all the events going on in the warmer months, and we wanted to help Park-goers interact with all that information. So recruitment for the Greeter/Guide program began. The most intensive of the committed programs, Greeter-Guides get rigorous training to turn them into Park experts before venturing out with the WSPC Welcome Wagon to spread their knowledge. It’s no surprise that a community like Greenwich Village has turned out some inquisitive and eager volunteers who’ve thrived in their roles.
It can sometimes be a challenge for the Conservancy’s small staff of three to keep up with burgeoning volunteer interest, but it also allows us to remain nimble. We have the ability to change and develop volunteer opportunities as the needs of the Park and the interests of the community shift. When people started expressing interest in taking photos of the Park, our third committed program for photography volunteers began: the newly dubbed Parktography Program (name courtesy of one of the program’s most prolific Parktographer, Malcolm). The work they produce has quickly become an essential part of the Conservancy’s regular communications, so while initially the program began to fulfill a community request it has also become integral to furthering the Conservancy’s mission. It also resulted in some truly spectacular images of this iconic Park.
COVID made maintaining the Park a bigger challenge than ever, as a hiring freeze left the maintenance crew short of its seasonal workers and thousands of people used Washington Square Park as their socializing hub. Recognizing the need for more hands, the Conservancy started a new committed program, the Clean Team. Clean Team members come to the Park individually or in pairs on their own schedule and spend time walking around with a trash can, broom and grabber, tidying things up. Even with the hiring freeze lifted and the Park back to normal staffing levels, the Clean Team is still hard at work in the Park, picking up litter on a regular basis but also coming out after high-traffic events to help get things back in shape that much faster. “They’re a huge help,” says DeAndre, a Conservancy-supported maintenance worker. “When I know there’s a volunteer walking the pathways I can focus on emptying the cans and cleaning the bathrooms. The more of us there are, the more that can get done.”
When volunteers are around to tackle more basic projects, staff have time for more specialized and hours-intensive tasks. That means overall work capacity is significantly increased and the Park sees the benefits in higher standards. This season we’re excited to announce a new volunteer program to do just that. At the request of NYC Parks, the Washington Sq. Waterers will ensure that newly planted street trees receive the optimal amount of water to have the best shot at growing strong so they shade our sidewalks for generations to come.
Washington Square Park is a community space, and in a neighborhood like Greenwich Village it’s no surprise that the community strives to give back to its Park. The Conservancy is proud to offer a wide variety of opportunities for all ages and abilities. One of the best ways you can support your Park is to give it your time and energy. A decade into supporting Washington Square Park, and we’re still innovating new ways to help people give back.
Want to join the effort? Applications for the Weeders, Waterers, Greeters, and Clean Team are open now, and Community Clean Ups will kick off with a special Earth Day opportunity on April 22nd (keep an eye on our website for sign up info).