New Kensington may not be where one would expect a peaceful recreational space, but that’s what volunteers are creating at Memorial Park.
The handiwork of dozens of volunteers has led to renovated pavilions, youth projects and landscaping throughout the park along the banks of Little Pucketa Creek.
Although vandalism and arson at the park’s bathrooms this fall was a setback, the city also received some good news to offset the bad.
The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society honored Memorial Park with an annual Community Greening Award.
Flossie Narducci, the society’s education manager, said the awards recognize communities that protect and promote quality green spaces in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.
Once limited to the Philadelphia region, the awards were expanded to include the entire state in 2007, Narducci said.
She said the awards committee receives more than 80 nominations each year.
About 60 public gardens and plantings were honored this year.
“I think it’s remarkable there are so many dedicated gardeners trying to beautify their communities,” she said.
Narducci said New Kensington’s award specifically recognizes the efforts of volunteer gardener Jeanne Smith.
“It’s hard to believe, but this little lady is a dynamo, planting and maintaining the 30 gardens within the park,” wrote the judges.
Smith began working in the park more than five years ago, first helping and then slowly taking over for Marcia Humphrey, a New Kensington police officer who cared for the park’s gardens. Humphrey died in October.
“There were about eight to 10 gardens when I started, and there wasn’t much in them,” Smith said.
But daily work slowly expanded them. Smith tries to add more every year; this fall she planted many bulbs and installed some stone designs.
“It relaxes me,” said Smith, who noted she’s experienced some health benefits from the manual labor. “It relaxes me and I get to talk to everybody.”
Smith said the Pucketos Garden Club, of which she is a member, nominated her for the award.
“It was quite an honor,” she said. “It’s always nice when you’re appreciated.”
Councilman Doug Aftanas, who oversees the city’s parks, said officials and volunteers have made an effort in recent years to improve the city’s public spaces.
Volunteers from The River church work at Memorial Park and elsewhere in the city twice a year, repairing roofs, weeding, picking up litter and completing other chores.
Alcoa donated labor and money a year ago to repair the restrooms.
A month ago, someone burned them down. New Kensington police continue to investigate the arson. A reward has been offered for information leading to a conviction.
Several Boy Scouts have completed Eagle Scout projects at Massa Harbison Park, a short distance from Memorial Park off Route 366.
And a Valley High School student last year organized a Christmas tree recycling program at the park, which Aftanas hopes to continue this year.
Aftanas said he believes Smith’s gardening plus the improvements and tree recycling program all helped contribute to Memorial Park’s state recognition.
“We all know it is a gem and a treasure,” said Mayor Tom Guzzo, who noted people are choosing the park for family reunions and weddings.
“It’s nice to know that it’s been recognized by others,” he said.
Smith said she enjoys watching the wildlife, including a hawk she believes is nesting nearby.
She said she wouldn’t mind more visitors enjoying her sanctuary: “I would love for more people to notice it.”