Dec. 26, 2023 By Iryna Shkurhan
Dozens of students in Queens chose to spend their first official day of the holiday break tending to Bayside’s Crocheron Park through a recently formed volunteer group.
The event, held Tuesday, Dec. 26, saw more than 30 volunteers scatter mulch around trees to prepare them for the winter months. NYC Parks employees were grateful for the additional help, noting that they lack the manpower to address all of the park’s needs.
The volunteers are part of the Oakland Gardens Branch of the Alliance of Youth Leaders in the United States, a group that was formed in August by three Townsend Harris High School students. Since its formation, the group has organized dozens of volunteer events, with many centered around improving parks in eastern Queens such as Cunningham Park, Fort Totten and Alley Pond Park. The Dec. 26 event was their last for the year.
At some of their past park events, they have planted trees, cleaned up trash and even given dilapidated benches a fresh coat of paint. In November, they partnered with the AYLUS Manhasset branch on Long Island and filled up 200 bags with leaves from Alley Pond Park that will be used for composting and mulch.
“The best part of having this group is everyone can come together for a stronger sense of community,” said Jia Qi Liu, a sophomore at Townsend Harris High School and co-founder of the branch. “It’s giving us a chance to interact with each other and bond and create friendships that could last a lifetime.”
When the group first formed, Liu was one of five initial members. Since then, it has grown to 125 members ranging from ages five to eighteen from over a dozen different schools. When school is in session, they host volunteering events almost every weekend. And at bimonthly meetings, they’ll generate ideas for upcoming projects based on the needs of the community and what interests the members.
The group has already won praise from park officials.
“One of our great partners is ALYUS Oakland Garden Branch, where dedicated high school kids show up year-round to rake leaves and care for trees,” said NYC Parks Public Engagement Coordinator Jennifer Graeff. “They are an excellent partner, and we want to thank them for all the work they have done!”
Liu, along with two other co-founders, was inspired to form the group after noticing a lack of volunteer opportunities for youth, especially those in elementary and middle school. She also struggled to find volunteer opportunities that were long-term and in a group setting, unlike her past volunteer experiences where she mostly worked alone.
“Our younger kids really enjoy these events as a whole because they get to release all that energy that’s inside them,” said Liu, an Oakland Gardens resident. “And they have fun while they are bettering the community.”
Parent advisors supervise the group during various events and encourage the older students to look out for the younger ones.
AYLUS has hundreds of branches across the country, but the newly formed Oakland Gardens group is one of the few in New York. After the students submitted an application to start their own branch, they were verified and created a website to share information about their events. After each event, they publish a report outlining the day’s work.
“NYC Parks has a long legacy of volunteerism, and we have seen firsthand how volunteering in a park, garden, or greenspace can positively impact mental, physical and community health,” said Graeff. “Through NYC Parks’ Let’s Green NYC initiative, we are making it easier for New Yorkers to join a volunteer group, get outside, and give back to their parks and to their community! It is also an opportunity to celebrate our park stewards and the incredible work they do!