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Bronx Shapes Advocate’s Identity as She Greens its Parks

Monday, December 16, 2013

Bronx is Blooming volunteers.


In the past two and a half years, Jenn Beaugrand’s Bronx is Blooming nonprofit has overseen 18,000 hours of park volunteer work – as many as nine years of work by a fulltime Parks Department employee. After Hurricane Sandy, Bronx is Blooming volunteers logged 2100 hours of cleanup work.
 
She has worked hard to cultivate her network of helpers: from students at Lehman College, which named her its 2012/2013 Outstanding Community Partner of the Year, to volunteer organizations like buildOn and New York Cares.
 
It’s no surprise, then, that she’s become a fixture in the Bronx park advocacy world since starting the organization in 2011, and is a familiar face in parks across the South Bronx – including Claremont, Mullaly, Franz Sigel, Joyce Kilmer and Hunts Point Riverside, to name a few.
 
“She’s the most enthusiastic person you could ever know,” said Dart Westphal, a longtime Bronx advocate and former President of the Moshulu Preservation Coalition. “She just knows how to get people involved and to care about a space. She has a tenacity and energy that’s unusual.”
 
It’s that tenacity – an innate ability to get people hooked – that draws volunteers in: from students who may begin with little enthusiasm, to Bronx park-users she recruits as they’re passing by.
 
Case in point: Alice, who was walking her dog in Williamsbridge Oval Park in 2005 when she passed Beaugrand, who was then a Parks Department worker, gardening. Before she knew it, Alice had tied her dog’s leash to Beaugrand’s wheelbarrow, put down her coffee and spent the next four hours working with her.
 
“After that she became my dedicated Sunday volunteer,” Beaugrand said.
 
Then there are the students, most of whom hadn’t spent much time thinking about park stewardship before they met Beaugrand. For example, Oscar (his name has been changed), with whom she worked last summer, now notices even the smallest of New York City streetscape features: tree pits.
 
“This spoke to the heart of what we are trying to achieve,” Beaugrand said. “Here was a student and Bronx resident who had never thought about his environment, and we brought it to the forefront of his attention.”
 
And not only does Bronx is Blooming help raise her volunteers’ consciousness of local environmental issues; it also highlights the critical role parks play in community building and neighborhood life.
 
“[Bronx is Blooming] gives our students and volunteers the opportunity to connect to people they would not necessarily meet, making use of the park as an equalizer,” Beaugrand said. “It gives our youth the opportunity to be leaders in their communities.”
 
Bronx is Blooming volunteers are highly efficient and organized. They fan out across parks in teams, hauling debris, removing invasive species, mulching and planting daffodils.
 
Beaugrand has been one of the most prolific participants in New Yorkers for Parks’ Daffodil Project for several years. Her work with Westphal earned the Moshulu Preservation Coalition Preservation NY4P’s Bronx Borough Award in 2009, and this fall, Bronx is Blooming volunteers planted more than 1,500 bulbs in Franz Sigel Park, and thousands more across the borough.
 
On a weekday afternoon last August in Claremont Park, Beaugrand proudly pointed to a few of her group’s successes: a hillside restored after Sandy, trees free of invasive vines, and grassy areas neatly defined with fresh mulch.
 
A constant theme of any conversation with Beaugrand about her work is her effusive praise for the Bronx Parks Department staff, with whom she works closely and has a special bond; after all, it’s where she got her start in the parks world in 2005, as a gardener in Williamsbridge Oval Park. She recalls how welcoming the staff was to “the new girl” with little gardening experience, who had travelled all the way from Brooklyn to the northwest Bronx.
 
Particularly inspiring for her was Juan Morales, a former longtime Parks Crew Chief at Williamsbridge Oval, who helped her understand the importance of a reliably constant presence – a familiar face – for park-users.
 
Now, she often fills that same role in South Bronx parks that were once more synonymous with the burnt-out buildings alongside them than anything grown within. That’s the Bronx Beaugrand grew up too often hearing about on Manhattan’s east side.
 
“There was often a perception of the Bronx as an unsafe place,” she said. “But that’s the antithesis of my experience there. There’s a sense of community here. It seems like those who have stayed are stronger for it.”
 
Now, having forged not only professional but also personal relationships in the Bronx, she, too, is staying. This month she’ll move into an apartment near Franz Sigel Park, by Yankee Stadium.

Reporting contributed by NY4P Communications Intern Erica Cooperberg.



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