Just after nine on Saturday morning, and Freddie Hidalgo and family are taking a walk in Papago Park. “It’s something we can do as a family,” he says. But it isn’t your standard stroll.
Hidalgo, a Wal-Mart employee, woke his Casa Grande family at 6:30 a.m. to get here. Now they’re walking to a far-flung corner of Papago, where they’ll spend the morning wrestling cactus into the ground.
“I don’t mind,” he chuckles. “As long as it isn’t that jumping cactus.”
The Hidalgos are more than 160 volunteers who forsook a leisurely morning for the chance to swing a pick, clear a trail or plant a cactus for the greater good as part of the National Parks America Tour, a volunteer-driven beautification initiative.
“We definitely get a lot done,” Alonso Avitia of the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department explains. Every year, the tour identifies 25 parks that can use an infusion of volunteer help.
“We’ll get projects that normally take four to five months done today, with the manpower we have.”
“Today, I’m the ‘chicken woman,’ ” Shannon Jones laughs, dispensing chicken wire so volunteers can protect their newly planted cactuses. It’s dusty work, as shovels scrape and prickly pears frame a bike trail beneath a brilliant blue sky.
Most days, Jones’ title is assistant manager at a Phoenix Wal-Mart. “This is giving back to the community. That’s the awesome part of it,” she says. “I have children. I want them to have something to look forward to.”
Community service is a common theme today. But that service comes from an eclectic array of groups.
“We’re University of Virginia alumni,” Lincoln Burke of Phoenix says, as he and his father haul cactuses out to the trails. “This is part of ‘Cavaliers Care.’ Every year, around Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, alumni groups do a philanthropic project.”
Several trails away, Zainad Nazary and a dozen girls in head scarves apply elbow-grease philanthropy to a weather-beaten restroom.
“We have to scrub it before we paint it,” she tells companion Nada Sarsour as they turn soapy brushes against the Sedona-red walls. “We’re from Arizona Cultural Academy, and we need (volunteer) hours for school,” Nazary explains, “but we actually do want to help the community.”
The Phoenix-based private school carries a hefty quarterly community service requirement, which the girls discuss, along with brush size and scrubbing technique, as the wall comes clean.
“We’ve done other projects,” she says. “Food drives ...”
“We did a soup kitchen,” Sarsour, 15, adds.
“Yeah. We painted a house,” 17-year-old Nazary says. “We like the interaction with other people. So, we can get to know them and they can get to know us. You form relationships. And it’s fun doing things.”
Sponsored by Unilever, the National Park Foundation, Wal-Mart and Take Pride in America, the 10th annual National Parks America Tour turns out community members. From March through early November, church groups, corporate affiliates, school clubs and families will muster out for morning cleanup in places as diverse as Yosemite National Park, Ellis Island and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. It’s a national call to help out locally, one cigarette butt at a time.
“There’s a bunch of trash down here,” a voice calls. “Let’s go!”
Aluminium pickup rods clang between the paloverdes as kids in white tour T-shirts spear trash along the trails. It would look like a prison detail, except the mood is lighter, the line wobbles and most of the T-shirts stretch to the knees.
“We’re mostly getting bottles and candy wrappers,” Umer Syed says of the morning’s work. The 11-year-old Tempe native, also an Arizona Cultural Academy student, says he doesn’t mind the work. “It encourages other people to feel good about helping the community.”
The tour was conceived as a grass-roots way of injecting vitality into the nation’s 391 national parks. This year, it will bring more than 275,000 volunteer hours — or $4.75 million worth of service — to U.S. parks. Beyond simple tasks and needed cleanup, Unilever spokesman David Strickland hopes the project instills “a renewed sense of stewardship for our national parks and lands.”