Interns keep Memorial Park neat, healthy, sustainable

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — In the center of Maplewood are 25 acres of recreation space; playgrounds, tennis and basketball courts, softball fields, and a duck pond can all be found in Maplewood Memorial Park. The town’s Department of Public Works is normally tasked with maintaining the park, but this summer the Maplewood Memorial Park Conservancy’s internship program has helped with the work. Every day, in more than a typical 9-to-5 workday, a group of interns researches the plants and wildlife in the park while also cleaning the area.

“There’s less and less staff now,” MMPC Chairwoman Deborah Lyons said in an Aug. 22 interview with the News-Record. “The municipal staff can’t have set people out here every day, so these guys have been out here pruning. It’s worked well in a big park.”

The MMPC was created in 2014 to conserve Memorial Park, a state-registered historic landmark designed by the Olmsted Brothers. The Maplewood Historic Preservation Commission began the internship program in 2014 and the MMPC took it over last year. Lyons has been developing the program along with board members Kathy Kohlman and David Nial, the chairman of MMPC’s Landscape Committee.

“We wanted to make it more compatible for park management and for outreach,” Lyons said.

In addition to park cleanup and scientific research, the interns — whose work began in June and continues through August — have also been working on landscape design. Jennifer Ryan, who recently finished graduate school at Rutgers University with a degree in landscape design, took the helm in designing a revamped Flagpole Hill. This is the second summer Ryan has worked with MMPC.

“It’s doing planting designs and what I was doing in school,” Ryan said in an Aug. 22 interview with the News-Record. “I’ve been identifying trees and plants and took those and used them in the design. I tried to make a design that would capture the spirit but still accentuate the park.”

Ryan and the three other MMPC interns — Greta Donato and Abdul Nasir, both students at Rutgers University, and Grace Kim, a student at Montclair State University — arrive at the park early in the morning to hit the ground running.

“These guys start at 7, which is impressive,” Nial said in an Aug. 22 interview with the News-Record.

And they start at 7 a.m., regardless of the weather. According to U.S. Climate Data, nearby Newark typically gets 3.7 inches of rain in August; however, as of Aug. 24, AccuWeather reports Newark has already received 5.71 inches of rain this month. All the precipitation has forced the MMPC interns inside for large amounts of time to work on their research and field notes.

Kim, an environmental science major at MSU, said working in the park has allowed her to identify plants and wildlife in a hands-on way.

“We’re identifying plants and taking out invasive species,” Kim said in an Aug. 22 interview with the News-Record. “We’re also testing mulch to supplement weed growth.”

The interns have been especially focused on weed growth around the duck pond in Memorial Park, working with Maplewood officials, such as Maplewood DPW Director Calvin Bell, to manage the plants that grow in and around it, according to Nasir.

“Working with the local bodies of government has been pretty interesting,” Nasir, an environmental planning and design major at Rutgers, said in an Aug. 22 interview with the News-Record. “We’ve been working with Calvin and we briefed him about the duck pond and they’ll use that. It’s nice to be a part of that process.”

Nasir said the duck pond is healthy, actually too healthy.

“In a public park it doesn’t look good when it’s overgrown and crowded,” he said. “And the ducks are staying in the river and not the pond. That’s good for most wildlife, but what’s good for one isn’t always good for another. We’ve been learning about natural resources in a suburban area and working with the government on how to get the public to care.”

Bell said the work done by the MMPC interns this summer has been valuable to the DPW.

“They’ve been a true asset,” Bell said in an Aug. 24 phone interview with the News-Record. “They’ve assisted our department with the pond, especially. They’ve cleaned it, moving duckweed and lily pads.”

Bell said that having extra hands on deck has made it easier to distribute work among department workers, who have also been able to take the research that Nasir, Ryan, Kim and Donato have done this summer for use in the future.

“Having additional manpower is exciting,” he said. “We only have a couple of guys, and it goes quicker and more efficiently this way. These interns were excellent; they’ve been the best interns we’ve had. I would love to have them all the time.”

According to Kim, Memorial Park is usually crowded and the interns are often working around residents enjoying the park. As Maplewood is an environmentally conscious town with several organizations promoting recycling and eco-friendly behaviors, Kim said many park-goers ask what the interns are doing.

“They come and ask what we’re working on,” she said. “They care. They always say ‘thank you,’ and that’s really nice.”

Maplewood Township Committeewoman Nancy Adams is one of the people thanking the interns. As the committee’s liaison to the MMPC, she has been receiving updates on how the program has been going all summer.

“It’s been great,” Adams said in an Aug. 22 phone interview with the News-Record. “They’ve been taking care of the plants and weeds and finding things that aren’t environmentally friendly. They’ve been working with the DPW pretty much every day and we really thank them for working so hard and giving so much TLC to maintain the park’s beauty.”

Maintaining the park is one of the overarching goals of the MMPC and the interns have been helping with that, Lyons said. While clearing weeds and brush in one area, they uncovered a tree dedication that had been lost under the overgrown plants.

“You really see a difference,” Lyons said. “There were so many weeds and vines that it was hidden. But we really want to maintain this park for the future.”

The park’s history also includes famous landscape designers; the Olmsted Brothers were hired by Maplewood in the 1920s to create the park. Nial wants to make sure the park remains the space they imagined all those years ago, despite the many changes since then.

“We want to reserve a green oasis away from all the hubbub,” Nial said. “That was Olmsted’s idea, to create a place where workers could rest and take a break.”

Photos Courtesy of Deborah Lyons