Jennifer Spieser, Executive Director of the Cincinnati Parks Foundation, doesn’t hesitate when it comes to discussing the number of hours poured into maintaining the city’s parks.
“Thousands,” she says. “Thousands of volunteer hours helping to plan, program and maintain. People love their Cincinnati parks. I mean fiercely love their parks.”
That love has translated into countless hours and innumerable dedicated supporters coming together to preserve and improve their beloved parks for decades. “For 20-plus years, we’ve been able to do this from the time, talent and treasure of our volunteers,” says Spieser, who has only three full-time staff members and one temporary employee. “We’re a small but mighty team. We wouldn’t be if it weren’t for our volunteers.”
What do these committed Cincinnatians do to support and maintain their parks? Well, a little of everything, pitching in wherever their time, interests, capabilities, resources and talents best fit. Their mission? According to cincinnatiparksfoundation.org, it’s “… the conservation and enhancement of our city’s parks and green spaces through education, advocacy, and fundraising.”
“Removing honeysuckle, clearing trails … Cincinnati Parks maintain over 10 percent of Cincinnati’s land mass. That’s over 5,000 acres,” Spieser says. “We have a docent program that provides free tours of Smale Riverfront Park. A group of maybe 15 active docents who are, throughout the year, rain or shine, out in the park showing it off. And it’s volunteers like the Krohn Crafters who have volunteered at the Krohn Conservatory for over 84 years. They make the ornaments on the Krohn Christmas tree, build fairy houses and villages, plant plots on corners and around the city. We also have volunteers who come into our office for administrative support, to organize the office, enter information into our database … It’s important to us because we do have a small team.”
Through the generosity of the Helen G., Henry F. & Louise Tuechter Dornette Foundation, Cincinnati Parks Foundation hosts a free hiking club at Mount Airy Forest, the 1,455-acre park on the West Side. Four times per week, trail guides meet with hikers of varying skill levels and capabilities, and lead them on a tour of the beautiful nature trails.
All hikes begin and end at the beloved Everybody’s Treehouse. “It’s the first universally accessible treehouse in our region,” says Spieser. In fact, it’s the only treehouse in Ohio that allows such universal accessibility, and one of only five in the nation.
The Nature Next Door program provides nature education to underserved youth.
Some volunteers have made their labor of love a lifelong pursuit. “One standout person is a woman by the name of Cathy Moon, who helped to create Friends of Krohn,” says Spieser. “She just took it upon herself because of her love of horticulture and the Krohn Conservatory. In addition, Cathy volunteered as the bookkeeper at the Cincinnati Parks Foundation for 18 years.”
Fundraising also plays a crucial role in keeping the Cincinnati Parks Foundation running. “Cincinnati Parks Foundation receives no public tax dollars,” says Spieser. “We do work closely with the Cincinnati Park Board, but they are the public body and we are the private body. We are two separate entities who share the same mission. We’re here to help fundraise and advocate for them.”
Among the most visible volunteer fundraising groups is the Women’s Committee of Smale Riverfront Park, which boasts more than 500 members. “We credit them with helping leverage all the private money that went into funding Smale Riverfront Park.”
One of the most successful fundraising initiatives of the Women’s Committee is the Hats Off Luncheon, a gala-style event that brings in more than $500,000. “It helps raise money for preservation and programming initiatives for future generations to enjoy. There are over 100 volunteer committee members,” says Spieser. “They spend almost nine months planning this event.”
In addition to fundraising, the foundation relies heavily on the generosity of private donations. While volunteers keep the wheels turning, donors provide the grease. “These are generous Cincinnatians who could have chosen to give to any number of organizations, charities, needs … and they choose to give to their parks,” says Spieser. “We have a family who recently gave a big donation to have a new playground built at Alms Park, the Terry K. Crilley Family Playground.”
There’s a note of reverence in Spieser’s voice as she continues. “Lots of families are using Cincinnati Parks as their backyard. Even more special is the generosity of the many who choose to give gifts for the entire community to enjoy.”
Getting involved is simple. “[Potential volunteers] can contact our office and we can get them synced up,” says Spieser. “Some jobs are big, some jobs are really small. We’re extremely grateful for any support.”
To summarize the social impact of the parks system and its reliance on the generosity of the public, Spieser quotes John Neyer, President of the Foundation’s Board of Directors.
“[He] always says, ‘Parks and libraries are the two equalizers within our community.’ Our parks are assets. They’re what bring people to Cincinnati to live, work and play. They’re boosting economic development, helping people with health and wellness, and they’re free and accessible to all. Cincinnati Parks demonstrate the principle of social equity.”
Cincinnati Parks Foundation is located at 421 Oak Street, Cincinnati, OH 45219. For more information, call 513.861.0023 or visit www.cincinnatiparksfoundation.org.