In under two miles and about five minutes, you can travel by car from NJIT to Newark’s very own Branch Brook Park. Visitors can find a lake, several walking paths, a skating rink, and many more attractions in the area.
“Essex County Branch Brook Park is renowned for having the largest and most varied collection of Japanese Flowering Cherry Blossom Trees in the United States at over 5,200,” Kevin Mejia, program director of Care of the Park, which is powered by Jersey Cares, said. “We are also the first county park system in the U.S. conceived by Frederick Law Olmsted, designed by the Olmsted Firm, and built in 1895.”
As a nonprofit park conservancy, Mejia’s team equips, empowers, and mobilizes volunteers in stewardship to the park. Many NJIT students have been known to volunteer at the park, as it is local and supports their college city of Newark. As of now, most of the work is focused on the southern division of the park — between Park Avenue and Interstate 280.
Thursdays to Sundays mark volunteer days, with times from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The alliance usually gets up to 50 volunteers on these days; the registry is cut off 48 hours prior to the start of the volunteer session. Mejia will greet volunteers upon arrival, typically at the Prudential Concert Grove. After the registration and welcome, he will turn the team over to the horticulturist — an expert in garden cultivation and management — and gardeners who will lead the service.
Some of the possible tasks include weeding, removal of invasive plants, trash, debris, and graffiti if applicable, laying mulch, planting, pruning, shoveling, raking, and watering areas. The tasks available for volunteers vary based on the week and season during which they decide to come.
A break is provided from 11:15-11:30 a.m. Volunteers should supply their own water or bring a reusable water bottle to fill up from the water cooler — the alliance does not offer disposable cups. At 12:30 p.m., volunteers will begin to clean up and organize the tools and equipment back in the tool room. At 12:55 p.m., the alliance and volunteers will regroup and take a final group photo to share on social media.
“I have been part of Branch Brook Park Alliance since February of this year. During quarantine, I was able to take a road trip from New Jersey to Mexico visiting most major national parks. I quickly gained a love for the outdoors and decided to learn about environmental conservancy and urban sustainability,” Mejia said. “I came across this opportunity that happened to focus on the revitalization of Branch Brook Park, a park which I frequently visited as a kid growing up. The love for outdoors and Newark both aligned in this position of program director.”
In October, the park holds health and wellness festivals. “We invite NJIT to come out to enjoy live music, food trucks, free art activation, and so much more. We will also be needing volunteers to assist with the festivals,” Mejia added.
Some positions for volunteers include greeters, direction assistants, registration assistants, and general upkeepers. Greeters welcome over 200 guests by saying “hello” or “welcome.” Direction assistants will provide directions, guiding event attendees through various tables. Registration assistants will contribute to the check-in process of vendors, artists, artisans, and other health or social service organizations. General upkeepers will keep an eye out for trash on the grounds and pick it up as needed.
According to the Jersey Cares website, “The community ambassadors of the Branch Brook Park Alliance successfully piloted the event last year for maximum public outreach to ensure that a diverse mix of wellness activities, art and artists were featured. The program consists of wellness activations such as Zumba, yoga, and bootcamp as well as live performances, live art demonstrations and displays of current art, and wellness throughout the event. The series of events include participatory workshops that make the connection between social determinants of health and the arts, an arts market featuring local artists such as painters, sculptors and photographers, and music and artistic performances.”
To Mejia, “the park gives us the ability to put aside the Newark hustle and bustle and allows us to come together with different communities to help us focus on our own wellbeing. As the famous American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted said, ‘we must reimage our public places so they can foster health and wellbeing for all communities.’”
Mejia cherishes all the occasions on which people have approached him while in the park and thanked him for the service the alliance does for the community.
“This summer we offered free yoga, and after one of the sessions, one of the ladies approached me and told me how I would never understand what free yoga at Branch Brook meant to her. She works six days a week, and the only time she felt grounded and at ease was through the 45 minutes she spent at Branch Brook doing yoga,” he said. “It warms my heart to know we make Branch Brook Park a better place every day for us all to enjoy.”
To register to volunteer, visit https://www.jerseycares.org/opportunity/a0C3l00000oYYKaEAO/care-of-the-park-in-branch-brook-park.
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