Volunteer Armies

Volunteer Armies

East Bay citizens labor for the cities they love.

Once a week, Robin Jones dons a chartreuse safety vest, puts on her gloves, and by 7 a.m. is out on Oakland’s Seminary Avenue, a busy traffic corridor between Highway 580 and MacArthur Boulevard in her neighborhood near Mills College, picking up trash, mostly fast food wrappers tossed out of car windows. She is not a city worker, but rather one of the legions of resident volunteers who are helping maintain a city that faced a $32 million budget deficit for 2010-2011.

“I love Oakland and want to do my part to make it more beautiful,” says Jones, a nurse at both the University of California San Francisco Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center. “There’s a budget crisis in Oakland, so it’s basically up to us residents to keep our neighborhoods clean.”

A year and a half ago, Jones found the city’s Adopt-a-Spot notice on the Public Works Agency page of the city’s website, filled out a form (“Adopt-a” programs require a year’s commitment), and was sent gloves, a vest, and some bags and sticks for picking up trash. She does her cleanup each week and emails the city when she has bags ready for pickup. “A lot of people honk and give me a thumbs-up,” she says, “so you can tell it’s really appreciated.”

As any public school parent knows, taxes for education don’t cover everything that kids and teachers need. Some parents donate their own time and money to fill the gap, doing everything from helping out in the classroom and on the playground, to paying for librarians, classroom aides, and art teachers.

Net gain: James Robinson, a coordinator at the Lake Merritt Institute, scoops trash from the lake. Photo by Phyllis Christopher.

Now cash-strapped cities and states are taking a page out of the schools’ playbook and inviting citizens to do work previously paid for by the government. Over the past 10 to 20 years, public works and parks departments in Oakland, Berkeley, Albany, Alameda, and Richmond, like those in many cities around the country, have begun reaching out on their websites to residents to make sure streets, parks, creeks, and shorelines are adequately maintained.

Just this month, Richmond launched a new city-run volunteer program, requesting, via its website, help with planting, painting, landscape weeding, and litter and graffiti cleanup. Probably no East Bay city, however, relies more on the elbow grease and good will of its citizens than sprawling, financially beleaguered Oakland.

Interestingly, Oakland’s public works agency is one of only three in California to be accredited nationally by the American Public Works Association. Oakland has been recognized as one of the top 10 green and sustainable U.S. cities; in 2009, the Natural Resources Defense Council ranked it fourth among U.S. cities with a population of more than 250,000.


Ad hoc assistants: Brothers Kai Tung Fong (left) and Kai Ming Fong (right) spruce up the shores during a Lake Merritt Institute workday. Photo by Phyllis Christopher.

On a Saturday in mid-February, an energetic group of about 10, wielding hoes, rakes, and clippers, cheerily toils in the Florentine section of Oakland’s Morcom Rose Garden, just past the reflecting pool. The garden is an 8-acre bowl of formal flower beds built as a WPA project in 1932 and located on Jean Street off Grand Avenue near Piedmont. And the gardeners are not city employees, but elite members of the Lake Merritt Master Volunteers or, as the group is more commonly known, the Dedicated Deadheaders.

“All of the roses in this area are antique and classical,” explains Anca Mosoiu, a member of the Deadheaders, pointing to the bed she’s working in. “Some have been here since 1932. But this area gets less water, so some volunteers come in and water it if it’s looking dry. The city hooks the hoses up for us.

“It’s a nice group,” she says of the Deadheaders, “and we get a couple of new people every month.”

Mosoiu works closely with Oakland’s Public Works Park Supervisor Victoria “Tora” Rocha, a city employee who co-founded the Friends of the Morcom Rose Garden (a group which encompasses the Deadheaders) in 2009.

“This is our Golden Gate Park,” says Rocha, who grew up in San Leandro and whose parents brought her to Lake Merritt as a child. “We have Fairyland and the botanical gardens, a boathouse, and a museum. I grew up wanting to work here. First I was a zookeeper and I trained elephants—not everybody can put that on their résumé—then the city moved me to Fairyland. Then I was a gardener and crew leader for 25 years, before being promoted to a park supervisor less than a year ago.”

Rocha says her point in starting the Friends of the Morcom Rose Garden was “not just to take care of the garden, but to build community.”

Catch of the day: Lake Merritt litter. Photo by Phyllis Christopher.

Two years ago, says Rocha, the Morcom garden “took a huge hit.” At that time she was both the head gardener and crew leader. Suddenly staffing was reduced to one full-time position (hers) and part-time help—and Rocha was assigned 12 other parks to take care of as well. Clearly, she couldn’t do all the Rose Garden work on her own (in the mid-’80s, for example, there were three city gardeners assigned to it and eight other parks). But she noticed how quickly neighbors stepped up after the Rose Garden was vandalized and someone stole the power tools; this gave her confidence the community would help.

Today, after receiving training from the city’s gardeners, Dedicated Deadheaders earn the right to wear official hand–tie-dyed vests as they weed and water the beds, prune the rose bushes, and trim off dead blooms (the practice known as deadheading). There are workdays twice a month in the garden, except during the pruning season (December through February), when they work every week.

Mosoiu, a software engineer and owner of Tech Liminal, a business that helps individuals and businesses become tech-savvy, works in the Rose Garden every week. She moved to the United States from Romania at age 9 and spent time in the Rose Garden in her youth, then rediscovered it when Rocha asked her to design a website for Friends of the Morcom Rose Garden.

Later, at Rocha’s request, Mosoiu also designed, pro bono, software to keep track of all the volunteers and their work through a program known as OURVOLTS (Volunteer Online Tracking System).

Helping hands: Students from St. Paul’s School in Oakland dredge Lake Merritt for detritus. Photo by Jane Adams. Battle.

“I asked Anca for the moon and she gave me the rocket,” says Rocha. Now volunteers can log their own hours. The system is now employed by other volunteer groups in Oakland and Friends of the San Jose Rose Garden, and rose gardens in Connecticut and Illinois will be using it soon as well.

The Master Volunteers are now branching out. They meet at the Lake Chalet on the fourth Saturday of the month to augment the public works staff’s maintenance efforts along Lakeside Drive; next, they’ll tackle the landscaping on Lakeshore Avenue.


“In the early 1980s we had 78 full-time gardeners budgeted in Oakland,” says Jim Ryugo, building services manager for the city of Oakland, who oversees maintenance of parks, trees, and park buildings. “Now we’re down to 38. The reductions are budget-driven, yet at the same time the number of gardens, parks, and landscaped medians has increased. Every year we are adding new parks.”

Measure DD, a $198.25 million bond measure passed in 2002, with work begun in 2008, provided for improvements to the area surrounding the 3.4-mile circumference of Lake Merritt; along Lakeshore Avenue; Embarcadero, where the pergola is located; the East 18th Street Pier; the Municipal Boat House, which houses the Lake Chalet restaurant; and along Lakeside Drive. The largest of the Measure DD projects is the huge 12th Street project underway at the south end of the lake near the Kaiser Convention Center.

Thanks to the addition in 2009 of landscaping where there was previously turf, land that once needed just mowing and watering is now dotted with large areas of shrub beds that need to be trimmed, weeded, and cleared of litter.

“We got capital dollars to spend on improvements, but we don’t have the maintenance dollars to pay to keep them up,” explains Ryugo. “It’s a real big disconnect. And it’s not just in Oakland, it’s statewide.”

To date, volunteers have been stepping up to fill the gap. There are various “Friends Of” groups (a trend echoed throughout other East Bay cities) and organizations like Berkeley Path Wanderers, dedicated to the creation, preservation, and restoration of public paths, steps, and walkways. And last year in Oakland, 1,700 volunteers logged more than 20,000 hours cleaning up 93 different sites—parks, creeks, gardens, medians, bus stops, and other places in need—through its Adopt-a-Spot, Adopt-a-Block, Adopt-a-Creek, and Maintain-a-Drain programs, all listed on Oakland’s Public Works Agency website.

With Maintain-a-Drain, residents clear garbage, litter, and leaves out of neighborhood storm drains to prevent flooding and Bay pollution. The Adopt-a-Creek program invites individuals and groups to get involved in “cleaning, greening, and maintaining neighborhood creeks,” and can involve regularly picking up trash, planting native plants, and removing non-native ones, studying and reporting on water quality and habitat, and removing graffiti.

Other East Bay cities run similar programs: Berkeley has Adopt-a-Drain, Alameda has Adopt-a-Spot and Adopt-a-Creek, and Richmond has Adopt-a-Park.

The “Adopt-a” motif took off from Adopt-a-Highway, a 22-year-old CalTrans program publicized by those little freeway signs that tell drivers “Yuba City Moose Lodge #1204” or “Black Wing Tattoo & Piercing” have been picking up litter, removing graffiti, planting trees or wildflowers, and controlling vegetation.

Since CalTrans began the program in 1989, more than 120,000 Californians have cleaned up and enhanced more than 15,000 miles of roadside shoulders. Individuals, businesses, or organizations usually “adopt” a two-mile stretch of roadside, with permits issued for five-year periods. If they do a good job, groups may renew their permits indefinitely.

It’s the concept of “indefinitely” that gives some taxpayers pause. Relying on volunteers to keep roadsides and city streets and parks clean strikes some as an unsustainable solution. But Oakland Public Works spokesperson Kristine Shaff stresses that the volunteers are not performing routine maintenance—their tasks center on beautification and enhancement.

“The business of Oakland Public Works is accomplished by our staff, who receive training in topics including power tools and equipment, irrigation and electrical systems, and excavation and trenching,” Shaff says.

“Since this type of work needs equipment and has safety concerns as governed by CalOSHA [California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration], you will not see our volunteers using power tools or filling in potholes themselves,” she adds.

Also, Shaff says, comparing staff levels in gardens and parks from decades ago can be misleading, because some staff cuts are the result of efficiencies and improved technology, including computerized irrigation, power mowers, better fertilizers, and the introduction of drought-tolerant plants that require less care.

“Collaboration and enhancement is what we’re going for, as part of the bigger picture of civic engagement,” Shaff says. “This is America, a democracy, and anytime somebody volunteers, they’re showing engagement in city government at a deeper level. Even if somebody comes in for an hour to help ‘clean and green,’ it’s really in that spirit of engagement.”


The city of Oakland is not the only government body struggling to keep its green spaces open and clean. The much-publicized threat of state park closures, for example, looms large in light of the proposed $22 million in state park cuts indicated in Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal for the fiscal year 2011-12.

In Albany, says Tony Wolcott, supervisor of urban forestry and maintenance, “the city has been very supportive of green issues like plantings and landscaping.”

Wolcott’s department is funded by a local Landscaping and Lighting bond measure passed in the 1990s. But budget cuts intended to streamline maintenance have made his job tougher.

“We once had a staff of ‘12 and 12’—12 staffers for parks and rec and 12 who maintained streets and sewers,” he says. “Now we’re down to a staff of six total to handle buildings, streets, sewers, painting, signs, as well as trees, parks, mowing, edging, weeding, and so on.

“We have been understaffed for some time and consequently some work is contracted out,” Wolcott adds. “This often ends up being very expensive.”

In Oakland, park maintenance is entirely paid for by the city’s Landscape and Lighting Assessment District, created in the 1970s to fund landscaping, tree maintenance, and street lamps throughout the city by assessing an annual tax on real property owners—a fee based on type of property and location.

“But what was enough money back then is insufficient now,” says Jennie Gerard, chief of staff for Oakland City Councilmember Pat Kernighan, who represents District 2, which includes Lake Merritt and the Morcom Rose Garden.

“There are some grants that come through the state, but they are basically for capital improvements and design work,” says Gerard. “Maintenance is entirely a local deal when it comes to parks.”

Without the volunteers, says Oakland building services manager Ryugo, the park landscaping and flower beds in Oakland would still be maintained by the Public Works Agency, but cleanup would be slower with fewer people attending to the chores, and citizens would notice weeds, litter, and shrubs that need pruning. “There simply isn’t enough city staff to do that kind of labor. Oaklanders really support their parks,” he says.

“Volunteer gardeners have played a big role in restoring several special gardens to their original glory, including the Morcom Rose Garden and Lakeside Gardens,” Kernighan says. “Working under the supervision of public works professional horticulturalists, this has been a great example of a public-private partnership.

“As city resources dwindle, volunteers in our parks will become even more essential for maintaining our parks in some kind of acceptable condition,” Kernighan adds. “Functions like mowing lawns and irrigation maintenance will still need to be done by city employees, but I expect we will have to rely more and more on volunteers to keep up with things like pulling weeds and litter pickup.”

That’s fine with Mary Ellen Navas, who lives in a mid-rise building at 19th and Jackson overlooking the lake. Navas was instrumental in building the volunteer base that has become the Deadheaders, and is doing the same for Lake Merritt. “I see an opportunity for people who love the lake to make it theirs,” she says, “not just a place they visit.”

Navas also helped restore the gardens at Lakeside Elementary School and is a member of Friends of the Gardens of Lake Merritt. She understands that not everybody has as much time available to volunteer as she does, having retired from a 25-year career at AT&T and five years working with her husband’s business consulting firm. “I do it out of my own desire to make a difference and contribute to the place I live,” she says.

Navas wrestles with what role citizens should play and what role government has to maintain city amenities, but concludes that “there is so much to be gained from participation and engagement, I’m convinced that any community will be better if the citizens are actually involved and not just paying taxes.

“The city has got a set of problems that require the community to step up and fill in the gaps,” she says. “If every person gave something to the city, the city could work better and people would see that things get better when they’re involved.”


Some volunteer groups have been lending a hand for years. The Lake Merritt Institute, a nonprofit corporation under contract with the city of Oakland, was started in 1992, and has worked with volunteers to pick manmade trash out of water along the shoreline since December 1996. It has also installed and maintains four aeration fountains in the lake.

“Today we found a BART card with $10 on it,” says St. Paul’s Episcopal School sixth-grader Miriam Rose, as she drags a long-poled net through the water on Lake Merritt’s east side on a recent Thursday. She says she likes helping keep the lake clean. “It makes me feel kind of proud, because people walk by and say thanks.”

Rose’s school—an independent K-8 school on Grand Avenue across from Children’s Fairyland—sends 22 sixth-graders every Thursday to scoop out debris. Students from local high schools and colleges earn service hours and extra credit for their cleanup contributions. And the institute hosts free-for-all cleanups every Tuesday beginning at 10:30 a.m. and every Saturday starting at 10 a.m. Volunteers find nets, trash barrels, gloves, and trash bags in U-Clean-It Station boxes at four locations around the lake.

Lake Merritt Institute Executive Director Richard Bailey, who has a doctorate in forestry and natural resources, says much of the trash is carried by storm drains that empty into the lake. “Seven square miles drain into Lake Merritt,” he explains. “There are 33 acres of watershed to every acre of lake. So when it rains, it can get pretty messy.”

Bailey has seen “just about everything you could imagine” get pulled out of the lake, he says, including “a bowling ball, a sawed-off shotgun, a casket with a baby gerbil inside—somebody’s pet that was buried at sea.” Volunteers clear between 1,000 and 6,000 pounds of manmade trash from the lake each month, he estimates.

“It’s kind of fun,” says Rose’s classmate, Kaylee Alvarado. “It’s also hard, because sometimes something’s really stuck in the mud.”

Their teacher, Susan Porter, has been leading her classes in lake cleanup for 15 years. “When we started we were the only school or organization that was doing this, besides the small number of volunteers they’d get on Tuesday or Saturday.

“I like taking my students here, because they get to know the lake and see the change in the seasons, and they can see how it makes a difference. It’s a way of giving back to the city.”

Tony Wolcott, the Albany urban forestry supervisor, works for the city. But he also contributes, pro bono, to a two-year-old, all-volunteer group, Self-Sustaining Communities, that plants fruit-bearing trees in low-income neighborhoods of West Contra Costa County. Currently focused on Richmond, the group has brought more than 5,300 fruit-bearing trees to the area since November 2009.

Says Linda Schneider, the executive director of Self-Sustaining Communities, “When you don’t have a viable economy, and the government isn’t coming up with a solution, you have to start solving problems collectively.”

Robin Jones, the nurse who adopted a spot near Mills College after she discovered the program on the city of Oakland website, doesn’t begrudge her city asking citizens for help. “I don’t mind picking up the trash near my block,” she says. “There’s a lot of dumping in Oakland, and the city takes care of that. I think Oakland is just too big. I’m pretty sure there are some others who are picking up litter in my neighborhood as well. Some people walk by when I’m working and say, ‘I really should join you.’”

Regan McMahon is an Oakland writer.

Faces of the East Bay