Volunteer steps up to maintain Portland parks for no pay
Tim Kasal can walk a mile in each direction at his neighborhood park and point to improvements he's made.
The grass at Hillsdale Park? He mows, seeds and reseeds it a few times each year. A walking path at the park? That's his work, too.
Next door, at Robert Gray Middle School, students sluggishly run around a field during a physical education class. "I laid that chip path for them," Kasal notes, pointing to a narrow but pristine bark chip running track that encircles a baseball diamond.
No one paid him or asked. They never do, but as Kasal admits, "I don't ask permission or forgiveness."
He's a de facto caretaker for every property in the vicinity of the Hillsdale Park.
The city-owned park is one of 33 parks and natural areas in Southwest Portland under city jurisdiction. It's known to most as the Hillsdale dog park. On a crisp, late summer morning, a labradoodle prances around until a pair of huskies arrive, inciting a stare down.
Kasal, 67, now retired from the construction industry, is here every day. The park is sandwiched between a Christian church and a Jewish synagogue. Behind the synagogue, a nature trail meanders over a creek. Kasal can remember when the creek and hillside were nearly invisible behind a thicket of blackberry bushes and invasive ivy. With some hand tools and landscaping instincts, he says he restored the creek by removing debris and created a walking path on a trail above the creek, which sits on the synagogue property.
Now, there are hikers and dog walkers who meander along the trail. Kasal's wife, Lori Kasal, used the trail and nature area frequently last year while rehabilitating from a stroke.
Kasal calls his dedication and passion for the work he does "an obsession."
Lori Kasal jokes that it's more akin to "psychopathic," but she's also one of his most ardent supporters.
"I've worked on school and city parks my whole life," Kasal said, waving to a P.E. teacher at the middle school. "It embarrassed me that the school in my neighborhood didn't look good, so I brought my weed-eater all along the fence line. The school district doesn't have funds to do anything."
Kasal isn't alone on his mission to upkeep the park, school and nearby church properties in the neighborhood. Hillsdale Park is lined with freshly planted flowers and native plants, thanks to the work of another volunteer.
With no irrigation system at the park, Kasal and real estate agent Tom Inglesbe have teamed up to make sure the grass and trees at the park get watered regularly. He estimates the pair spends about $600 every three months on water. Inglesbe has resorted to posting unassuming signs tucked in plastic bags, asking for donations to offset the costs of hauling in water by the jug and bottle.
Kasal has become such a fixture at the park and adjoining properties, he started storing supplies and tools on the site. Each morning, he shows up in his late model pickup truck, often with his yellow labrador, Reggie, in tow.
Kasal moved to Portland when he was in middle school and has lived in the city ever since. He and Lori raised two children in Southwest Portland.
In eighth grade, he shared a class with Matt Groening, the famed creator of "The Simpsons."
"He got in trouble for doing one of his doodles on school property," Kasal recalls, noting Groening spray-painted an early drawing outside the school. He laughs at the irony. "Imagine if they had just left it, how iconic it would be," he muses.
Coincidentally, the city of Portland announced recently that it would name a bike and pedestrian bridge after one of Groening's famous "Simpsons" characters, Ned Flanders, the nosy, do-good, religious neighbor.
Kasal's volunteer work has been welcomed by the private property owners adjacent to the park, but the city has been less receptive. Officials with Portland Parks & Recreation said rogue volunteers can be problematic for them.
"Portland Parks & Recreation welcomes and celebrates volunteer efforts," said Mark Ross, PP&R's public information officer. "Volunteers don't take the place of our valued, professional staff, but we all benefit when they engage with their parks system. It benefits the entire community."
Ross said the parks department loves its volunteers, as long as they are working in tandem with the city.
"To be a PP&R volunteer, one must be doing work assigned by or agreed to by appropriate staff. We have a longstanding volunteer program to ensure that work is agreed upon by both a neighbor or group, and PP&R staff, so that it's in line with the park's needs," Ross said.
In addition to volunteers, city parks staffers are doing regular upkeep and maintenance.
PP&R staff empty the trash cans at the off-leash dog park twice per day. They mow the turf, take care of trees when possible and perform other regular maintenance like weeding and litter removal, according to the city.
That work is about to get a boost, thanks to a parks levy approved last November that will help fund additional maintenance and services.
None of that is likely to deter Kasal.
"We've kind of got a lot of people in this neighborhood who get involved," he said, proudly.
Want to lend a hand?
Portland Parks & Recreation is always looking for volunteers to help coach, mentor, or lend a hand at a local park. To learn more, visit the city's volunteer site.
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