When the winter ice storm hit East Multnomah County earlier this year, it wreaked havoc on a popular Rockwood greenspace.
Nadaka Nature Park had been buffeted by rain, sleet, snow and high-winds. Branches fell across the 10-acre property, young trees had been uprooted, pathways destroyed, and the community garden was a mess.
But for the youths who have been working at Nadaka for the past year, the damage was not daunting. Instead they rolled up their sleeves, grabbed their shovels, and got to work.
"This park is beautiful," said 19-year-old Rico Garland. "We all care about it and helping our community."
Twice a week, 20 youths have been working at Nadaka Nature Park, 17615 N.E. Glisan St., through the nonprofit Play Grow Learn. They plant, weed, and clean the park to ensure it remains a safe and fun place for local families to visit.
The Play Grow Learn youths, ages 15-24, all receive a stipend for their work, and are helping fill the gaps in Gresham when it comes to funding and maintaining parks. For those kids, Play Grow Learn led to the first time they had ever visited Nadaka, despite it being in their community.
"They want to work and take ownership of the park," said Germaine Flentroy, program coordinator with Play Grow Learn. "All it takes is one opportunity."
Now, if not for the youths, the state of Nadaka would be in a much more dire place.
"I'm so grateful (they) are helping maintain this park, because the city isn't able to," said Lee Dayfield, the creative force behind Nadaka.
On Thursday, March 11, those kids were able to showcase their hard work to Gresham Mayor Travis Stovall, who visited Nadaka to learn more about Play Grow Learn's efforts.
The mayor walked along a newly constructed path through the wooded area, toured the gardens where community members are learning to grow their own healthy produce, and admired the dozens of trees that have been planted. He even got a lesson on how to propagate new plants from cuttings.
"What Play Grow Learn is accomplishing here is incredibly important and impressive," Stovall said. "The best part was listening to their passion about planting trees."
The tour was also a chance for the youths to connect with the new leader of their city. Many were excited to meet "someone famous," and used the opportunity to speak with Stovall about what their communities need.
And of course, they were proud to show Stovall all that has been accomplished at Nadaka.
"Do you see that — we planted those trees," Garland said.
For many years it has been the same song, different tune in Gresham — the city does not have the funding to support parks.
The problems began two decades ago with a pair of ballot measures passed in Gresham that hamstrung the city's ability to fund greenspaces. The votes set a permanent property tax that was the second lowest in the state.
In 1990, Gresham's property taxes paid for 100% of police and fire services. Now, those taxes are only able to foot 40% of those expenses. And the lion's share goes to public safety, leaving parks to wither.
"It's about funding mechanisms to get our parks to a new level," Stovall said.
One solution would be to form a parks district, which the city is investigating with a feasibility study. The district would have the power to construct, reconstruct, alter, enlarge, operate and maintain lakes, parks, recreation grounds and buildings; acquire necessary lands; and to call necessary elections after being formed.
But it is difficult to implement, and necessitates city leadership lessening control over greenspaces and a successful public vote. Other solutions include a new parks utility fee; increasing the existing Police-Fire-Parks fee; or vying for an Operations Levy/Bond Measure, which would collect from property taxes.
A group within the community, including Dayfield and other leaders at Nadaka, have also requested participatory budgeting when it comes to parks, which allows for community input in how to spend funds.
"Years ago the city had to cut parks and recreation programs, which was really hard on the community," said Keri Handaly, who works with the Nadaka kids through Gresham's water resources division. "Programs like Play Grow Learn help bring back those needed services."
While there are no easy answers, the work being done by youths at Nadaka highlight a potential future for the city's parks.
"We are doing the stuff that otherwise isn't going to get done, and showing the city what can be accomplished with a shoestring budget," said Anthony Bradley, executive director of Play Grow Learn.
Play Grow Learn is thriving at Nadaka thanks to a coalition of partners all coming together.
Friends of Nadaka lends guidance and has continued its ambassador program, with Vanessa Chambers and Rhonda Combs continuing oversight at the park, tidying the playground and ensuring the space remains safe and welcome to the many families who visit.
City staff and Friends of Trees visit to provide expertise; Adam Kohl and Outgrowing Hunger operate the community garden and assist in securing grants; East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District provides funding; and Metro Regional Government and East County Rising both have backed the nonprofit organization.
The latest partnership is with PGE Project Zero, which will send two interns this summer to help Play Grow Learn at Nadaka.
"The program connects young folks with meaningful employment," Taaj Armstrong, cohort dean for Project Zero's green jobs internship program. "We are so excited to partner with Play Grow Learn."
But everything Play Grow Learn is accomplishing remains on unstable ground.
"This all could be gone tomorrow," Flentroy said. "We are surviving on short-term grants and solutions."
Play Grow Learn requires more support to keep going, and they hope the visit from Mayor Stovall might signal future backing from the city of Gresham. The nonprofit organization needs more stable funding and in-kind support to continue teaching youths skills and keeping them out of dangerous situations.
"I believe the support is out there," Bradley said.
If they can secure it, Play Grow Learn has a bright vision for Gresham. They want similar programs in every East Multnomah County park, with teams of teens caring for greenspaces, learning valuable skills, and finding future employment opportunities.
"We all have to do our part to represent and teach kids of color," Flentroy said.
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