With less resources than normal due to city staff furloughs caused by the economy-crumbling coronavirus, Boulder Parks and Recreation Department has made many changes to its operations on the fly, relying on volunteers to get some maintenance work done.
“Picking up litter has been an antidote to troubling times for me,” said Jane Angulo, who spent a couple hours Wednesday morning volunteering at Boulder Reservoir, as she has done at least once a week for much of the year.
She and others like Barbara Brandt answered the call of the city’s Park Champs program to turn community members onto some volunteer maintenance jobs in public areas to let the limited municipal staff that remains employed focus on more technical work during the city’s hiring freeze for seasonal and temporary workers.
“When they sent out a call for volunteers, it seemed like a natural fit to be able to give back to a place we really enjoy with the trails and all of the wildlife and natural habitat areas,” Brandt said.
Helping to facilitate the transition of these duties from staffers to residents has been the PLAY Boulder Foundation, the philanthropic partner of the department, which was itself hit hard by the pandemic.
A grant to the foundation funded by the city’s tax on sugary beverages was cut from $225,000 this year to half that as the financial fallout of the virus struck Boulder. But the foundation ensured the families of the 500 youth participants of the PLAYpass program who had already been told they had been accepted to receive vouchers to use on recreational programs that none would have the assistance stripped. Instead, the value of each voucher was cut in half from $250 to $125, and the foundation is allowing the credits to roll into next year to be flexible, since some of the recreational service providers that work with the program may not be fully operational, and families may not be ready to have their kids around others, until the virus subsides.
“Those health equity access programs were all heavily hit. It’s the story of the low-income, predominantly Hispanic, predominantly black and brown families being impacted. We need to correct that,” Katie Theiler, executive director of the foundation, said.
Since the Park Champs volunteer program started this spring, the foundation has helped make and supply masks to workers, including some featuring ducks as a form of advertising its annual Labor Day rubber duck race that serves as a fundraiser for the organization’s programs, including PLAYpass. It will be a virtual event this year with the goal to raise $100,000, which could support community members getting into outdoor and other activities just as some facilities and operators begin slowly ramping up to a pre-pandemic business pace.
The foundation also helped market the Park Champs volunteer program through its social media channels.
“I think the whole purpose of having a foundation is to help in these times. That’s exactly what they’re there for,” Theiler said.
Boulder Parks and Recreation Director Ali Rhodes noted July is National Park and Recreation Month and that “this year more than ever, our team is worth celebrating,” adding that staff has performed “one Herculean effort after another.”
Almost everything the staff has pulled off in the past four months has impressed the department head, and the local parks system is seeing unprecedented visitation.
“I’m so proud of their efforts that have kept the parks safe and clean so our community members can take care of their bodies and minds,” Rhodes said. “… Sadly, levels of service are certainly impacted by resources limitations — staff, budget, public health guidelines. … Also more valuable than ever is the community’s support. Boulderites are known for their commitment to health and well-being. We’re grateful for the community’s compliance with health guidelines. We are really thankful for the work Park Champs are doing.”
Volunteers have turned out for the city’s Open Space and Mountain Parks Department, too, another branch of the municipal government that was hit hard by the furloughs and suspension of much summertime hiring.
“We’re also grateful that all OSMP ongoing, longer-term volunteer programs are currently full — an example of Boulder’s long legacy of community land conservation,” city open space spokesperson Phillip Yates said.
One-day volunteer project opportunities resumed for the open space agency in mid-June, and workers are required to comply with the county’s face covering order, which applies to outdoor spaces and volunteers and open space visitors. Projects have been redesigned to accommodate safe practices during the pandemic and are currently limited in size to eight participants.