|Laquita and Gary Strawn|
A new volunteer-based program aimed at keeping Santee’s river trails and parks user friendly needs singles and couples, boomers and retirees, Gen Xers and millennials.Park Watch is for anyone who wants to put their best feet forward for their community.
Take, for instance, Gary and Laqueta Strawn.Since February, the retired Santee couple have been walking each Thursday at Mast Park with a checklist, a trash grabber and sometimes friends and family members.
They check the park for vandalism and graffiti. They also chat with visitors and take a mental inventory of who’s using the park.Park Watch volunteers are ambassadors who offer visitors assurance that locals care about Santee’s trails and public spaces. Their purpose is to add an extra set of eyes and ears, not to supplant the role of law enforcement. If they see something illegal, they report it to authorities.
During one of their recent patrols, Gary hiked to the far edge of the park to retrieve an abandoned shopping cart, while Laqueta pecked at fluttering fast-food wrappers with her pick-up stick.
“It gets us out every Thursday morning for some fresh air and exercise,” Laqueta said. “But I also get the satisfaction of being a good Santee citizen.”Park Watch volunteers aren’t required to pick up trash. Laqueta does it anyway because, for her, litter is simply too annoying to ignore.
Quite often, they are joined by friends and family members, including their grandkids.“It’s one thing to talk to your grandchildren about being responsible to make things better, but it has more of an impact when they see what you do,” Laqueta said. “Part of it for me is setting a good example for them.”
Santee’s Park Watch program was created by the nonprofit San Diego River Park Foundation under a 2-year grant for $216,000 from the Transnet Program administered by the San Diego Association of Governments. The foundation operates a separate Park Watch program along the San Diego River in Mission Valley.
So far, seven Santee residents have completed the 1-hour training and picked a portion of the San Diego River Trail to patrol. During their training session, volunteers are coached on how to be observers only and not to confront people who are breaking laws. They also take note of how many people are using the parks and trails and record other statistics, such as the number of bicycle riders and those playing sports.
For the Strawns, the most alarming thing they’ve encountered so far was the discovery of several discarded hypodermic needles left under an underpass.
The Strawns say they believe their presence as volunteers reinforces the perception that Santee’s parks are family friendly and safe.
“We want women who walk their babies down here on the trail to feel safe,” Laqueta said.
“And they do,” Gary added. “They’re down here with their strollers and kids. It’s good to see that.”
To adequately cover the 10 river trail segments in Santee, the foundation needs another 15 to 25 volunteers, said Richie Aguilera, a volunteer coordinator for the River Park Foundation.
“We’d like to have a diverse group of people, but we’d love anyone’s help,” said Aguilera.
In addition to attending the brief orientation workshop, volunteers are asked to commit to walk one or more sections of the San Diego River Trail one each week and to do it for at least three months.
“We want them to get something out of it,” he said. “We want it to be a fun experience as well as a way to get involved in the community.”
You can volunteer for Park Watch by contacting the San Diego River Park Foundation via email at volunteer @sandiegoriver.org or by calling them at (619) 297-7380.