The early days of Nadaka Nature Park were just a pair of hardworking sisters trying their best to develop the green space into what they envisioned would benefit the community.
Eight years ago, the Rockwood property at 17615 N.E. Glisan St. was still undeveloped, with the forest walk overrun by invasive species and trash. Surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, the neighbors saw the space as a blight on the community, filled with homelessness and crime.
But Lee Dayfield had a different idea for the space. Eventually she was able to secure grants and support to turn Nadaka into one of Gresham's most unique parks. A little elbow grease from Dayfield and her sister Fran Dearborn went a long way.
"The neighbors were all afraid to go in there, and it was really hard work in the beginning," Dearborn said. "A lot of times it was just the two of us pulling weeds, but eventually the community came around to accepting the park."
While Dearborn jokes her sister sometimes had to shanghai her into helping, Nadaka continues to be an important place for her. Dearborn, 71, still works on the park, though this time there is a lot more support. She is one of Nadaka's "Ambassadors," an innovative program that has allowed the park to thrive.
The Ambassador Program is a paid volunteer opportunity that allows the participants to choose their own hours. The 15-person team — which includes 10 paid positions and five unpaid spots — plant and weed, clean the facilities, support the community garden, greet visitors, pick up trash and watch out for trouble by providing a positive presence. When weather is bad, they will also help with administrative work in the office.
"Being an ambassador is sharing the goodwill about the park," Dearborn said, "telling people what's available and helping ensure this is a special place for everyone."
The city of Gresham acquired Nadaka Nature Park in 1995 from the Camp Fire Organization, which used to host day camps at the site. The city opened the forest to the public in 2001 after adding a trail and irrigation line.
In 2009 the Wilkes East Neighborhood Association and Friends of Nadaka obtained a $200,000 capital Metro Nature in Neighborhoods grant to purchase the two acres of property next to the woods — securing what would eventually become the playground. The East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District contributed more funds, while the seller T.A. Nelson Estate donated the rest of the land as a gift.
With the acquisition, the forces behind Nadaka were finally able to open access to the community. The park officially celebrated its grand opening and ribbon-cutting the spring of 2015.
Part of the process included coming up with an official vision and goal for the green space, which sparked the idea for the ambassadors.
"Our ambassadors are different from the other volunteers who do so much for Nadaka because they come consistently," said Monica McAllister, Nadaka's park coordinator.
McAllister was hired in part to help create and facilitate the Ambassador program, launched in 2015. By taking cues from other local groups such as Mt. Tabor's Weed Warriors and Gresham's Community Volunteers in Policing, Nadaka was able to create a program that sets it apart from other local parks.
"It creates an ownership of the park, and helps more people buy into the idea of supporting Nadaka," McAllister said. "We are also giving jobs to people in the community who live nearby the park."
The ambassadors serve as the team leaders during volunteer events and are big presences during the community festivals Nadaka hosts. The work hasn't gone unappreciated, and people have begun to take notice.
"They are thankful we are in the park cleaning up," McAllister said. "The neighbors want this to be a safe place."
Many of those diving into caring for Nadaka are younger people in the community. While they found their way to the park through different avenues, they all stay for the same reason — a love of what's considered Rockwood's most unique green space.
Trey Slyapich has been an ambassador to the park since summer 2016, where he was first introduced to Nadaka while with Striving to Reduce Youth Violence Everywhere (STRYVE), a Multnomah County program. That first visit started what Slyapich, 18, hopes will be a lifelong commitment.
"I love to work here because I want to learn how to sustain myself with organically grown food," Slyapich said.
Before the experience through STRYVE, the East Portland resident never even knew Nadaka existed.
"It's like a wonderland tucked into your backyard," he said.
Now Slyapich works about two days a week at Nadaka, mulching, removing invasive species and interacting with the homeless community who sometimes sleep in the wooded area of the park. He tries to be a positive force for all the visitors, and his supervisors say he is one of the best ambassadors when it comes to interacting with children.
"This place needs all the support it can get," Slyapich said. "Nadaka should not be forgotten."
Fellow ambassador 18-year-old Carina Nunez became connected to the space through an internship with SummerWorks. She said while she never had much of a green thumb, she took quickly to caring for the park and educating those who visit.
"I never had the chance to spend much time in the park, so I like being able to connect with the kids who come," Nunez said.
Her dream is to become a social worker, so serving as an ambassador is a good way to practice working within the community. Her favorite task, she noted, is communicating with Latino kids who visit with their classrooms, and teaching them about nature.
Nunez will attend Portland State University this fall, so she hopes to spend as much time at Nadaka as she can before moving on to the next stage of life.
"I got here," Nunez said, "and I fell in love."
Future of Nadaka
Since implementing the Ambassador program, far fewer suspicious incidents have been reported at the park. Those who have been there since the beginning said the amount of graffiti and trash has gone way down, and there is plenty of optimism toward the plans for Nadaka's future.
The forces behind the green space would love to bring more sculptures and art, additional structures to the playground, decorative edging around the rain garden, further restoration and maintenance in the forest, more multi-lingual signage, and a new garden and walking path along Northeast Glisan St.
"Having help doing this kind of work is creating a group of people with ownership of Nadaka park," McAllister said.
Things are much different now from the park's early days, when Dayfield and Dearborn would sometimes find themselves huddled under a tent trying to stay dry. These days there are many more visitors right there with them.
"It's been an unusual journey, but it gives you a sense of satisfaction to do something and see the result," Dearborn said.