December isn't the normal time to talk about parks. But this is the season of giving, and this column is about giving back to the community by cleaning up parks.
Parks are a sign of vitality — or lack thereof — in a community. A well-groomed park shows people have pride in their community, in their neighborhood, and consider quality of life a priority.
What do you look at when you're shopping for a home? The schools, the nearby homes, the parks and other amenities.
So now that we're nearing the midpoint of Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson's four-year term, remember her plan to get people to help clean up the city's many parks.
The first to pitch in was Neighborhoods Inc., led by Keith Speaks.
In late April 2012, the mayor mentioned a new adopt-a-park program. Speaks promptly volunteered to clean up Rees Park by the end of May.
"I could just read their minds, thinking who is this nut?" Speaks said. But he and his staff had done their homework, looking carefully at the park near the intersection of Grant Street and Fifth Avenue.
Neighborhoods Inc. cobbled together a team of volunteers, including a Lake County work release crew.
"It looked like the A-team," Speaks recalls. "The van doors spilled open, and these guys just started spilling out of there like a bunch of busy bumblebees, started picking up tools." The work Speaks thought would take four hours was done in half that time.
A total of more than 1,000 hours of labor were needed to clean up that park.
The nearby McDonald's restaurant adopted Rees Park so it would continue to be maintained.
Neighborhoods Inc. also cleaned up Borman Square Park near the Cathedral of Holy Angels, and the cleanup spread to the surrounding neighborhood. Three groups cleaned up 23 empty lots, Speaks said.
One man, whom Speaks referred to as "Chain Saw Bill," was helpful in cutting down trees growing in vacant lots.
Neighbors saw what was happening, came outside, and offered food and water.
The park, near the city's water tower, is getting more use now that it has been cleaned up, Speaks said. That will translate to taking better care of the park.
Neighborhoods Inc. was an early adopter, but not the only one.
The Bridgette Kelly Foundation and the Northwest Indiana Green Vision Project, led by the Times Media Co. and former Lake County Juvenile Court Judge Mary Beth Bonaventura, pitched in last year, along with other local organizations.
The key to making these cleanups successful is to involve the neighbors in the cleanup and deliver a park they will be so proud of that they will help the city maintain it.
"I've got neighbors over there — two guys, and that's been one and a half years now — who said they would come over and mow that park," Speaks said. "They don't even know each other."
But they know the value of a well-maintained park, and that's important in a city like Gary that is struggling to right itself.