Congratulations to our 2018 VIP (Volunteers-in-Parks) Award Winners!

We appreciate you, and the opportunity to celebrate you!


David Wright

2018 Stewardship VIP Award

David has been a stalwart volunteer at Nichols Park Wildflower Meadow and Jackson Park Bobolink Meadow. This summer, the Nichols Park Advisory Council received a grant from the South-East Chicago Commission (SECC) to rejuvenate the long neglected flower bed that encircles the 55th street fountain. Despite two weekends worth of effort, the flower bed was far from ready. It was David who proposed to meet each morning before work to finish the project, which they did and finished with a day to spare! It is dedication like this that has characterized David’s commitment to the parks and Chicago’s natural spaces.The parks have benefited from David as an experienced volunteer who can always be counted on to be there. NPAC’s summer project benefitted from David’s willingness to make the extra effort even after having already worked the scheduled workdays. David has extensive knowledge of flora and fauna that he freely shares with others. It’s a wonderful sight to see youngsters captivated by his explanation of the relationships between certain plants and insects (like butterflies and milkweed). For the other volunteers, he has been a great motivator and a joy to work around.Though David Wright was nominated because of his extraordinary efforts on during the planting project this summer, he has been doing this for years at other parks and other projects. It is this enthusiasm for and dedication to service in the parks that makes him most deserving of recognition. David Wright was honored with the 2018 Stewardship VIP award for his impact on Nichols Park, neighbors, and the local environment.

Willye White Park Advisory Council

2018 Park Advisory Council VIP Award

This VIP park advisory councils watches over three parks, all within a three block area, including Triangle Park. Another community entity came to the Willye White Park Advisory Council to tell of their plans of building a skateboarding park in Triangle Park and they wanted the Advisory Council’s support to help promote the idea. The PAC felt it was not the decision of a small group alone to push something on the community without first asking the people who live there about their feelings on removing green space. With that in mind, informal surveys asking one question were sent out to the community: “What do you think of a skateboarding park being built in Triangle Park?”  The overwhelming answer was, “No.”  Residents were quick to offer other suggestions that would enhance the park. When listening to their suggestions, the Triangle Park Community Orchard and Sculpture Garden idea was born. The Council approached the Chicago Park District about the idea, who responded by noting that they do not plant fruit trees in the parks. But the idea gained a lot of community support and after a five year-long journey, the PAC celebrated the planting of 32 fruit trees in June, 2018, making Triangle Park the very first official orchard planted by the Chicago Park District.  The PAC is not done, as they are reaching out to local schools and community organizations, and organizing educational tree-keeping workshops to teach friends, students, and neighbors of the Orchard and proper care and maintenance of the trees. The fruit that is harvested from the trees will be done by the community, for the community, and will be free for all.Willye White Park Advisory Council honored with the 2018 Park Advisory Council VIP award for their commitment to incorporating community voice in decision-making and for their determination in the face of, “No.”

Claretian Associates

2018 Community Group VIP Award

This community organization has turned it up a notch when it comes to activating open-spaces and engaging residents. From vacant lots, to streets, to parks, their work holds no bounds if it means improving resources and establishing assets for neighbors. This past year, the team at Claretian Associates hosted its first Earth Day celebration with 80 residents at South Chicago People’s Park, a parcel that is only the size of a house. This is not a traditional park as we usually know them, but one of the community managed open-spaces held in trust by another non-profit, Neighbor-Space, but is managed by Claretians. They spend a great deal of time ensuring this park is an asset to the neighbors. Earth Day was only the kick-off event to many great things to come. Claretian Associates became the community partner on a project to “activate” vacant lots with the intention of turning them into parks, and they have their sights on some near Calumet River. They co-led Chicago River Day and visioning events at one of these possible sites, which reached over a hundred attendees. They even held a Kaboom playground build at another vacant lot, recognizing the importance of safe play areas for the young people in their community. In the same vein, they have been long involved in creating play events and competitions by closing streets and creating safe spaces for youth and neighbors to play together. Claretian Associates was honored with the 2018 Community Group VIP Award for their significant contributions to the open-spaces in South Chicago and to the South Chicago community.


2018 Community Group VIP Award

There are few organizations that can accomplish the trifecta of civic engagement, community unity and fun in one event. This VIP group has become no stranger to parks and partnership, and they are all about building community by having residents come together to do just that, build things!  From pop-up parties, to workshops, to obstacle courses, Opera-Matic is a leader in thinking up the most creative ways to engage neighbors with their local parks. This small, but dedicated organization works really hard to activate parks, from Humboldt Park, to the 606, to Simons Park and Mozart Park. Opera-Matic was honored with the 2018 Community Group VIP Award for their outstanding work to unite people together in their local parks.

Wesley Wyatt

2018 Advocacy VIP Award

After the City of Chicago’s Department of Environment was dissolved by Mayor Emanuel, Essex Park, a well maintained and beautiful small pocket park, fell off the city’s radar. The park site had been a gas station that was remediated and developed into a park, and then owned and cared for by the department. Care for the park went to the wayside, the garbage piled up, the grass was left to grow, and the park fell into disrepair. This VIP, a neighbor of the park, knew from the start that this was not okay and it took him nearly seven years to bring the park back to the glory that he remembered. Mr. Wyatt relentlessly pleaded with city officials to take on their responsibility to the park and to neighbors. He made calls and visited offices, but Alderman after alderman was elected, garbage piled up summer after summer, and snow marked the sidewalks untouched each winter. He recruited other interested neighbors to help him bring the park to the attention of their elected officials, and he spent his own time picking up trash and caring for the park. But most notably, he never gave up on trying to bring the park to the attention of various city departments and City Hall, despite their disinterest for so long. Finally, in early 2018, the Chicago Park District officially approved the acquisition of the park to add to their portfolio. Wesley Wyatt honored with the 2018 Advocacy VIP Award for his significant advocacy effort to bring Essex Park back to glory.

Leslie Borns

2018 Advocacy VIP Award

This VIP is well known in Chicago’s stewardship community for her nearly two-decades of restoration work at Montrose Beach Dunes. But it is not her stewardship work that led to her VIP award today. On the Friday night of Memorial Day weekend, Leslie Borns learned news of a comment period notice for an inflatable water park at Montrose Beach. When Leslie heard this news, she did not hesitate to spring into action. Over the weekend she contacted the Montrose situation, and she put out a call-to-action to her hundreds of volunteers to share their thoughts on the proposal with the water park decision-makers. Though many of us do not know the whole story, we know that Montrose Beach users, from birders to boaters to volunteers, inundated the decision-makers inboxes with emails, and Leslie heard on the Tuesday after the holiday that the water park was dead. Leslie, a volunteer steward, had already found herself in the advocacy world before this. As a member of the Montrose Lakefront Coalition, Leslie had been connected to other Montrose area stakeholders and was working with them and local police to address the issues of dog walkers breaking rules and endangering the nesting habitat of rare, migrating birds in the protected dunes. Leslie has proven to be a vital ally for the area, by working with partners to preserve the area’s lakefront as a safe and accessible resource for both people and critical habitat species. Leslie Borns was honored with the 2018 Advocacy VIP award for her dedication to ensuring that the lake’s public assets are accessible for both humans and critters alike.

Michelle Molise, Karen Lamiot & Laurel Naegel

2018 Advocacy VIP Award

This group of VIP women were surprised to hear a community announcement that construction would start sometime between the following day and the remainder of the week, on a regulation size roller hockey rink funded by the Chicago Blackhawks. They were not part of an organization, but their robust list of concerns brought them together. None of the area’s residents knew about the two-year planning process and they were heartbroken and devastated by the potential impact the project would have on noise, pollution, parking, further park infrastructure deterioration, major traffic issues, park and street adjacent flooding, and loss of green space, including up to 30 trees. That May of 2017, they immediately began to explore their options to address the issues of lack of process transparency and also to ensure that the Park District, alderman, and Blackhawks had remedies for the concerns they identified. The year-long effort was certainly a difficult one for these women, as they wanted the roller rink in their community, but also because their homes were threatened by neighbors who believed that the Blackhawks’ roller rink should come to Brooks Park, regardless of any other costs to the community and park. They spent the year contacting decision makers, demanding that the Park District hold community meetings (the never did), listening to and organizing other neighbors, and they submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to shed light on the project. Finally, in the early summer of 2018, the Park District announced it was to hold a community meeting in Norwood Park, another park just a seven minute drive away, to hear the community’s thoughts on putting the roller rink there, renovating the existing, small roller rink that was already housed at the park. The community was unanimous, they wanted it at Norwood Park, and the opening of the roller rink was celebrated last month. Michelle Molise, Karen Lamiot and Laurel Naegel were honored  with the 2018 Advocacy VIP award for their perseverance and dedication to Brooks Park.

P.C. Gooden-Smiley

2018 Individual Volunteer VIP Award

This VIP has been the consummate community development leader in Uptown’s Margate Park as President of Buttercup Park Advisory Council since its establishment in 2011. P.C. has been critical in bringing in programming and beautifying Buttercup Park. As a certified gardener, “Clean and Green” programs and “Earth Day” give P.C. extraordinary opportunities to shine.  “Ultimate Steward” is probably the best phrase that can be used to describe the loving care that she exhibits for the flowers, plants and greenery that surrounds and enriches Buttercup Park. She is also dedicated to making it a place bustling with programming, despite it seemingly only being a small playlot with no field house. P.C. makes sure it is more than that. Buttercup Park has become a place to be and a venue to showcase art, culture, music and entertainment in the Uptown community. She was an avid proponent and advocate of the 48th Ward’s Hollywood-Sheridan TIF, which allowed the planning, financing and renovation of Buttercup that featured new playground equipment and a program plaza for movies and special events. She has worked diligently with her PAC team and community partners to bring outside support to the park to enhance the park for all. She has also proven herself a stupendous mentor to local youth in the vicinity, and advocate for community safety and security. P.C. Gooden-Smiley honored with the 2018 Individual Volunteer VIP Award for her efforts to make Buttercup Park a beacon in the community.

John Friedmann

2018 Individual Volunteer Award

As a member of the Horner Park Advisory Council, this VIP has gone above and beyond with their extensive planning of several major inaugural (and continuing) events: HornerFest, Horner Brew Fest, and RiverFest, which was planned on very short notice. John had put in countless hours in the planning and execution of these events, which benefit Horner Park from both community engagement and stewardship standpoints. The first two events have raised thousands of dollars for stewardship efforts in Horner Park, including much-needed ash tree treatments like ash tree preservation and the promotion of the great beauty of Horner Park. RiverFest was also a great event to celebrate the re-opening of Horner Park’s river-front area, and an historic event: the building of the first Native American ceremonial mound in several hundred years in the area.  This involved coordination with the Horner Park Advisory Council, the artist, and the park district, and hosting community meetings. This generated great community involvement and excitement. John has gone above and beyond in his efforts to support Horner Park and the Horner Park Advisory Council. His work has raised thousands of dollars for efforts, generated lots of community buzz and involvement with the park, and also impacts the parks’ stewardship efforts. John Friedmann was honored with the 2018 Individual Volunteer VIP Award for his commitment to improving and supporting Horner Park.

Denise Raymond

2018 Outstanding Park District Employee VIP Award

This VIP is central to everything that happens at Gompers Park. Rather than directing or dictating the development of park programs, events, and improvements, Denise, the park supervisor, facilitates, supports, and grows community investment in the park by collaborating with community members, the park advisory council, elected officials, and many other stakeholders. She has consistently and tirelessly worked to make the park the best it can be for all. As an example of her commitment to support and build community, she contributed her time and loaned supplies (such as tables, coolers and carnival games) to make the Mayfair 4th of July Parade a wonderful parade tradition, even though the event was co-led by other organizations and she did not have to. Additionally, she has been an advocate for all of the programs and events that are held in the park’s facilities. Not only for she has prioritized making programs available to all ages and of a variety of interests, but she has worked alongside the Gompers Park Advisory Council to keep and expand the wellness classes for adults, even expanding offerings when grants ran out and the budgets became tight. She is a strong ally and advisor of the park advisory council, and she supports and empowers community partners to create new ways for the park to be an inclusive center and the best, for all to come and learn, have fun, get to know one another, and enjoy. Denise Raymond was honored with the Outstanding Park District Employee VIP Award for her dedication to making Gompers Park a beacon in the community.

Daryl Roberson

2018 Outstanding Park District Employee VIP Award

Everyone knows this Foster Park attendant, from the children to the adults to the seniors.

He is known because of his dedication to the patrons of Foster Park. For those who know Daryl, they know that he is not appreciated enough. Daryl is the go-to person, whether you have a question about the park or even if you need a favor – (he is a great handy-man, but we’ll keep that a secret.) He is forever working to maintain and enhance the viability and the beauty of the 23-acre park and facility. He is constantly circulating Foster Park to ensure the functional and orderly status of the grounds and the equipment therein, ensuring a safe park for all its patrons. He advocates for the safety as well as the optimal performance of every aspect of the park and its services throughout his work hours. He is mission-focused and goal oriented, yet he maintains a demeanor that is both pleasant and approachable. He is described as trust-worthy, friendly, observant, and just a great person. He knows what is happening within all corners of the park, and the youth, adults and seniors respect and appreciate his devotion, loyalty and kindness. Daryl Roberson was honored with the Outstanding Park District Employee VIP Award for his dedication to making Foster Park a safe and welcoming park for all.

Brian & Mary Stevens

2018 Smoky Sakurada Friends of Friends VIP Award

Our final VIPs of the night are two community members from the Dunning neighborhood on the city’s northwest side. They are the unofficial stewards of the Dunning Read Conservation Area, known to some as the DRCA, a 25-acre prairie, woodlands and wetlands saved from demolition by Friends of the Parks and the community in 2005, and since co-managed by Friends of the Parks with the State and other partners. For the past two years, Mary and Brian Stevens have been some of the key stakeholders on the DRCA Stewardship Advisory Committee, and have co-organized and co-led monthly workdays to tackle the invasive species problem at the conservation area and maintain the walking trails. They are passionate and energetic about this site, and were even involved years ago when it was first being developed with trails and native plantings. They also are strong supporters of our Earth Team youth apprenticeship program, which has been held at the conservation area for the past two years, and they have come to speak to students about the history of the DRCA and the grassroots community organizing effort to preserve the site, and supported the youth’s tours. Mary has even put on a tour of the DRCA with another community member, leading tour attendees in a bird walk throughout the area. Brian has also ventured out on his own, going out on his own time to steward the site, including removing a fallen tree from the path so the Earth Team tour would be more accessible for attendees. Brian and Mary Stevens were the recipients of the 2018 Smokey Sakura Friends of Friends VIP Award for their significant impact on the Dunning Read Conservation Area.




Interested in volunteering with Friends of the Parks?  Fill out the form below, and we’ll get back to you ASAP!  Thank you for your interest!

Volunteer Interest form

Volunteer interest form