Volunteers make difference at Vannie’s 25th

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Van Cortlandt Park’s lake house was lit up against a darkening autumn evening on what was proclaimed as “Friends of Van Cortlandt Park Day” by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. on Oct. 15. 

The occasion marked the 25th anniversary of the organization that has played a major role in keeping the park clean.

Felicity Nitz started the nonprofit back in 1992 after she read a story in The New York Times describing the predicament facing Vannie. Budget shortfalls and mounting needs in all of New York City’s public parks were putting pressure on thec city’s parks department funding as well as its staff.

“My idea was that I wanted to do something meaningful for the park,” Nitz said. “The organization has grown, and now we introduce kids and youth to the outdoors while doing something amazing for the environment. It makes all the difference.”

The organization enables thousands of hours of volunteer and intern participation that help train the younger generation into being environmentally conscious while becoming stewards of the park that serves 6,000 people annually. 

Volunteers and interns maintain hiking trails and check water levels at the lake to make sure pollution isn’t harming the ecosystem. The organization also has recently launched a wetland stewardship project aimed at making local bodies of water cleaner for a healthy Bronx by removing invasive non-native plants to strengthen the biodiversity of the area.

Unlike many of its better-known counterparts like Central Park, Van Cortlandt Park had no wealthy benefactors or organized network of local support in 1992, according to executive director Christina Taylor. It took a committed group of community members to change that by reaching out to established neighborhood institutions and schools.

“Raising funds is a challenge for a small nonprofit,” she said. “With more awareness and support we can create and maintain a better park.”

The gala helped raised funds for future initiatives that are primed to make the park a go-to destination for the entire borough.

Volunteers are the bedrock of the institution and the Friends drove that point home by honoring volunteers Omar Ramirez and Enzo Ramirez, a pair of brothers who spent three summers with the Friends maintaining trails and building birdhouses for a variety of species that call Vannie home.

“The park, to us, represents childhood,” Omar Ramirez said. “I have so many memories here.”

For Diaz, memories growing up of Van Cortlandt Park are also fond, but are more significant these days.

“Back when I was a kid we would jump into the Bronx River and the water was unsanitary,” the borough president said. ”But with monitoring the water here at Van Cortlandt and work done all throughout the borough, we have beavers and fish again swimming here at home. 

“The park means a lot to us. It is our jewel.”

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