Category Archives: Second Set of 52 Weeks

Benefits of the Unexpected

Volunteering at Gallop NYC

Howard Beach, NY is nestled cozily into the Southwest portion of Queens. Across its Northern and Western borders runs the very busy Belt Parkway, a major thoroughfare transporting thousands of travelers to points between Staten Island and Long Island every day.

JFK Airport – the busiest of the 7 airports that serve NYC – juts up against the Eastern border. And Jamaica Bay and its estuary curl up along the South.

The neighborhoods within Howard Beach reflect its history. Each area showcases the housing style typical at the time of development.

One neighborhood, built directly after WWII, spans street after street of quaint cape-cod and raised-ranch homes on 50 x 100 lots, with tiny, neatly maintained, front yards.

A few streets over you’ll find larger two-story homes with Dutch-angled roofs, built in the 1950s. Each with street-level entries jutting out from the main house like a chin. These homes have bigger front yards – – almost every one delineated by ornate gates and fences.

The newest neighborhoods have 6-story red-brick apartment buildings and shared condos.

Some of the housing styles in Howard Beach

More than 26,000 people live in this busy, vibrant, urban 2.3 square mile area that is Howard Beach.

This is a fact I find almost impossible to believe as I stand looking out across a large, outdoor, riding arena surrounded by trees and listening to the cluck-cluck-cluck of a few chickens and the neighing of horses and ponies.

Two white geese are splashing in a small plastic kiddie pool off to the side.

Behind me, a long red stable barn runs out towards two fields where horses are stretching their legs and enjoying the morning sun.

A few more horses and ponies are grazing on fresh hay in a gated paddock attached to the side of the barn.

It’s hard to believe I disembarked from the busy NYC Subway’s A-Train less than a mile from here!

I am at Sunrise Stables in Howard Beach, Queens, one of Gallop NYC’s three locations.

I am here to volunteer for the morning – – helping work in the barn and lend a hand wherever needed.

Gallop NYC provides therapeutic horsemanship to veterans and people with developmental, emotional, social, and physical disabilities.

Their goal is to help individuals with physical, verbal, and learning skills… inspiring them to live their lives as fully and independently as possible.

Weekly Therapeutic Riding Sessions are led by PATH International certified therapeutic riding instructors. Trained volunteers are on hand to assist each rider.

The lessons provide the opportunity for students to learn how to ride while setting individual goals.

These goals translate to the world beyond the stable.

Learning how to build a bond with a horse, how to care for a horse, how to lead a horse, understanding how horses perceive the world – each these develop skills useful in daily life, such as: balance, control, muscle use and strength, patience, focus, empathy, emotional perception, and confidence.

In addition to the therapeutic riding lessons, Gallop NYC also has two unique programs for Veterans:

  • Riding for Veterans trains participants how to bond with and ride a horse and includes special breathing and physical techniques. Participants report decreased anxiety and depression, more focus in the workplace, more overall confidence, and the strengthening of leadership skills.
  • Groundwork for Veterans focuses participants on how to care for horses. Through this program they learn important verbal and non-verbal communication skills, patience, confidence, and leadership skills as they actively take on horse care responsibilities such as grooming, tackling, lead walking, lunging and other activities.

Gallop NYC also provides Hippotherapy sessions, which use the horse’s movement as a therapeutic rehabilitative treatment. The program is designed to improve coordination, balance, core stability, muscle tone, sensorimotor function, and overall strength. Sessions are conducted by a physical or occupational therapist. The therapist adds motor tasks to the horse’s movements to address the specific needs of the patient such as sitting, standing, walking, changing the horse’s direction or gait, and working with props.

Sweating my way through barn cleaning

I started the day helping muck the stables. The horses were out in pasture or already in the middle of lessons, so our team had time to clean out the stables and then provide fresh hay and water.

It was a super-hot day (Accuweather’s “real feel” listed at 99 degrees and humid), so frequent water breaks for all the volunteers, workers, and animals kept our energies up.

The volunteer coordinator who ran the barn staff and one of the head volunteers (who volunteers several times a week) were very helpful in showing me the ropes and allowing me to help in a wide variety of tasks. They also provided me with a lot of information about the horses and the programs.

In addition to mucking the stalls, I helped clean the water buckets and food buckets, as well as a variety of other equipment for the barn and horses.

Prior to coming for the day I was asked to watch a few videos provided by the organization which detailed how to behave around, and interact with, the horses.

The videos also explained in detail how volunteers help during the lessons by walking alongside the horse and supporting the rider for safety. I found the videos very helpful and useful. They definitely prepared me for the day!

Later that morning I had the opportunity to be a support volunteer walking alongside a horse during a rider’s session. The therapist in charge of the lesson gave me very specific and detailed instructions to ensure everyone was safe and the rider had any support they needed.

The student had been taking ongoing lessons so was experienced in riding. My job was to walk alongside the horse and hold my arm across the rider’s thigh while holding the edge of the saddle with my hand.

There was another volunteer on the other side of the horse and a third volunteer leading the horse with the reins. The instructor gave very specific directions to the rider to have them practice a variety of motor skills, posture setting, verbal communication, and more.

After the first time around the arena, the volunteers walking next to the horse were asked to let the rider’s legs go so that they had more independence and control. We continued to walk alongside to ensure rider safety. At this point the front-walker leading the horse helped the rider respond to the instructor’s directions to weave between cones, stop walking, start walking and more. The instructor also kept the rider focused on correct posture, proper body movement to direct the horse, and proper arm, leg and foot positions so all the correct muscles were engaged. The instructor’s passion for their work was inspiring.

The rider was very focused and seemed to be greatly enjoying the lesson!

At the end of the lesson the instructor and one of the aides helped the rider dismount. Myself and the other side walker volunteer stayed close by in case an extra set of hands were needed. It was very safe and the rider was very confident in their actions! They dismounted like a champ!

I was able to assist with a second lesson as well. I felt very lucky to participate in the training.

In between lessons I was able to help with other barn chores. It was clear the barn managers and volunteers truly enjoy caring for the horses. I found that very motivating.

I did have a favorite horse by end of day – Sadie. She was so gentle and loved scratches on her forehead.

Throughout my time that day I was continually surprised by the peaceful beauty of the surroundings. I kept thinking about how unexpected this was – a magical place within the densely-populated, hustle and bustle of Queens.

I was energized by the excitement and happiness of the students. They were working hard and learning lots. And they were making very special memories. I am positive they each had happy stories to tell their families about their lessons.

It was a joyful day!

Transitioning back to the city atmosphere as I walked the .8 mile back to the A-Train, I thought about the unexpected moments of the day – looking into the curious eye of a horse a few inches away, finding a beautiful rural farm in the middle of a busy city, seeing the joy on the faces of the students, meeting wonderful people who devote their time regularly to the organization….

Experiencing the unexpected affects how we see the world. It shines a light on something new, shifts perspectives, and inspires. It opens us up to thinking creatively. It is a chance to break away from life’s usual script, and a reminder that doing so is good for you!

I greatly enjoyed the day. The staff, the instructor, and the other volunteers were wonderful!

And I could tell through my interactions with the students that they were inspired by and felt joy from their experience. A chance to break away from their daily script to enjoy something special!

It helped me remember positive surprises and unexpected moments are important.

How can you bring more of the unexpected into your life and create small positive surprises?

It starts with curiosity. Pick a topic that sounds interesting and dig into it, search for a nearby organization you can volunteer with, or try shaking up your routine with a random walk (focusing on searching for unique beauty around you). Even looking at things you see every day with a new perspective can be a happy unexpected surprise.

If you remain curious as you do these things, you will be surprised at what opens up for you and within you. You can shake up your life with joy! And sharing those moments with others through story is part of the fun! Pulling others along with you into moments of curiosity and wonder spreads the benefits of the unexpected.

If you are interested in learning more about Gallop NYC, in volunteering with the organizaiton, or in donating to support their programs, please click this link:  GallopNYC

In addition to the Howard Beach, Queens, location, Gallop NYC has locations in Forest Hills, Queens, (a 30-horse stable and indoor riding arena and an outdoor bridle path) and Prospect Park, Brooklyn (they transport horses into the park, near the Parade Grounds, for lessons). If you live near any of those areas and would like more information about their programs, you can check out this link: programs — GallopNYC

Thank you for journeying with me this week!


Ripples of Hope across Humanity

How Volunteering at a 5K Has Meaningful Impact

Children in Conflict and hope across humanity….

It is a warm, humid, drizzly mid-June Saturday morning with a hauntingly beautiful view of the New York City skyline across the river, shrouded in fog and low-hanging clouds.

It’s as if we’ve been transported into a romantically nostalgic poem.

Volunteers are setting up tents and registration tables for a 5K Run/Walk. At one end of the lawn is a children’s station complete with temporary tattoos, a cotton candy machine, a coloring area, and a bounce house.

The DJ has started the music, the thump-thump-thump dancing up and out across the fog.

The event is a fundraiser for Children in Conflict (CIC), a non-profit focused on providing aid and support to children and families living in conflict, war, and crisis-centered areas of the world. They work in tandem with their sister non-profit, War Child UK (WCUK).

When conflict and crisis happen, CIC and WCUK are one of the first NGOs on site and the last to leave, prioritizing the type of aid and the programs they support based on the specific in-country circumstances. They work with local partners and hire field staff so they can deliver aid in a culturally cognizant manner while also providing employment opportunities for local, skilled individuals whose livelihoods were affected by conflict.

iStock 140394946 Credit: MirAgareb (purchased with credits)

In Syria, for example, they arrived soon after the devastating earthquake that struck in February 2023 and remain there today distributing critically needed supplies (food, clothing, blankets, mattresses, heaters), creating and providing safe shelters, helping to rebuild homes, and providing psychosocial first aid for children with signs of trauma.

In Afghanistan, where the humanitarian crisis grew exponentially after the economic collapse of the country (2022) in the wake of the Taliban takeover, over 90% of the population is food insecure and skips meals daily.(1)

Almost 400,000 people have had to flee their homes in search of safety and are living in makeshift shelters with little access to food, water, and hygiene.(2) CIC and WCUK works with local organizations to secure food, hygiene kits and psychological first aid. In one area of the country they also provide a shuttle bus to and from kindergarten for children being held in prison with their mothers so they can safely access school.

iStock: 1489543142 Credit: Lalocracio (purchased with credits)

In Ukraine, where war continues to claim lives and destroy homes/cities as well as vital infrastructure and services, CIC and WCUK work with partner organizations to provide essential provisions like food, clothes and psychological first aid to displaced families. They work to stop children from being abducted and/or trafficked when crossing borders. They also set up temporary learning centers so children can continue their education and regain a sense of normality.

Their “Can’t Wait to Learn” online learning platform enables 210,000 Ukrainian children to continue their studies. The Ukrainian Ministry of Education has chosen the program to be their primary online education intervention for children from grades 1 to 4 and all Ukrainian children can access the Ukrainian curriculum online from wherever they are in the world so they can learn in their own language.

CIC has also been supporting “Step by Step” – a Ukrainian program which rehabilitates shelters and uses them as kindergartens where children can receive non-formal education as well as socialize, play and feel safe. Parents can also relax and find some respite while their children play in a safe, secure space.

CIC and WCUK also work in Iraq, Yemen, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their model is “Respond, Recover, Rebuild.”

Respond projects deliver critical emergency aid where that is needed first, as primary priority. Recovery projects provide mental health support for children to effectively process their trauma in constructive ways. Rebuild programs are focused on rebuilding infrastructure – schools and learning places, and developing child protection initiatives.

They focus on each of these in different ways depending on the needs and environment in-country. You can read more about their important work in those countries here: 

As I set up the registration table for the 5K and read through the CIC’s latest Impact Report, I notice over 150 runners are registered to take part in the event and I feel an existential conflict.

There is a shocking incompatibility between the experience of a 5k in a beautiful location, filled with music, raffle prizes and a bounce house, and the lived experience of children and their families, half a world away, who are desperately in need of the essential aid provided by the non-profit.

I find myself asking, do the funds from this 5k have meaningful impact? Does my volunteering here support meaningful change?

The answer to both is YES – as part of a bigger whole. This local 5k is one small piece of a global aggregate of fundraising to support the organization’s mission and on the ground actions. Together, across a myriad of events at local and national levels, the funds have the momentum to achieve goals. Local events are a chance to be part of something larger.  

Most organizations will also tell you that local fundraising events are important for raising awareness which is just as important as raising funds because it opens people up to new information and new ideas and can possibly fuel a previously unknown passion to get involved in the cause. Expanding awareness can lead to greater numbers of supporters which builds momentum to effect change. And at the local level, participants and volunteers can have great impact in spreading awareness by helping the organization get the word out about their cause. That seed of awareness can blossom into other hearts and unfold into actions and contexts never even imagined.

I believe local non-profit fundraising events also nourish hope. They provide a conduit for individuals to live in generosity and share that experience with each other. To build community. To nourish the kindness of the human spirit, which often gets lost in the busy-ness of day to day and the in-the-moment focus of our lives.

I won this cute summer orange slice clutch at the raffle

Maria Popova, in one of her articles on her blog The Marginalian, writes “nothing broadens the soul more than the touch of kindness, given or received…(3) Local charity events provide the opportunity for the growth of shared kindness. A pathway for living with a perspective of love and kindness.

Local charity events also let you connect with causes that interest you and touch your heart. If you have a passion about something globally, there are always ways to get involved locally. And to get involved at whatever level you are motivated to be involved. Volunteering is an opportunity to remember that all humanity is tied together, and we can support each other across the globe. Ripples of kindness seeding the world – imagine if we prioritized that perspective first as humans? What would the world look and feel like then? 

I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s book, Pale Blue Dot, where he reflected on the last photo taken by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft as it left the solar system in February 1990. Just as it left our solar system it turned its cameras back to snap one last photo of Earth, which looked like the tiniest imaginable speck of dust caught in beam of light in a vast, incomprehensible emptiness. In his book Carl Sagan wrote:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam [….] The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet [….] To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.(4)

Imagine the world if everyone, across the globe, decided to deal more kindly with one another. Prioritized kindness. What would we create?

If you have a passion for a specific cause, do a search for a local chapter or supporting organization. You can also check out your local charities or look for volunteer opportunities through such on-line portals as Volunteer Match: or EventBrite: I find many of my volunteer activities on those two sites.

To learn more about Children in Conflict or to make a donation, visit

Thank you for joining my journey this week,



Touching life 400 million years ago

Spending a Night NYC Horseshoe Crab Monitoring

Here are things you may not know about Atlantic horseshoe crabs:

  • They are one of the world’s oldest species. Scientists have discovered fossils of horseshoe crab ancestors that lived over 445 million years ago (dinosaurs appeared 200 million years ago).
  • Horseshoe crab blood is blue. Their blood is copper-based, not iron-based like ours.
  • One mamma horseshoe crab will lay up to 120,000 eggs during a single spawning season.
  • Horseshoe crabs, and their eggs, glow under UV light/blacklight. The younger the crab, the brighter they glow.
  • Certain endangered migrating shore birds depend on horseshoe crab eggs to survive, including the Red Knot

High tide hit Big Egg Marsh in Queens at 10:52 p.m. on Tuesday June 20th. The incoming tidewater lapped against my knees… a good 3 or 4 inches above the tops of my rainboots… as I carefully and slowly walked along the shoreline trying not to step on the hundreds of horseshoe crabs who had migrated in this night to mate and spawn their eggs.

The only light coming from my headlamp and with the wind pushing the incoming tide, it was a bit disorienting to determine where to put my next step.

The bodies of female adult horseshoe crabs are the size of dinner plates. If you include their tails, they could easily be two feet long. Males are smaller, faster. Tails quickly moving back and forth as they skitter through the water. They use their tails for stability, not for protection, a fact for which I was grateful as dozens of them swarmed around my feet.

The mosquitoes were intense and unforgiving. Any new skin exposed to the air without a layer of bug spray would quickly be covered in mosquitoes looking for a late-nite dinner. In the time it took me to push my long sleeves back from my wrist up to my elbows and spray a good dose of bug repellent, I counted no less than a dozen mosquitoes landing on my arm for a feast.

I was part of a small team of volunteers with the NYC Audubon Society, there to monitor the horseshoe crabs by counting them, checking for (and recording) pre-tagged crabs, and then tagging a few of our own after catching them, measuring them and checking for a few specific characteristics before releasing them back into the bay.

If you’ve never caught a live horseshoe crab it is like picking up a piece of ancient earth. Shells hard and dark, sometimes covered in barnacles, they’re faster than you think. They can weigh up to 11 pounds. All of which makes catching them in the water in the complete dark, under a new moon, using only your headlamp to track them, a challenge.

Picking them up means placing your hands on either side of the center edges of their body shells and quickly flipping them up and over so their 10 pairs of legs are flailing about in the air. From here, upside down, you can see their claws, their gills, and their jawless mouths, which, if you touch it, feels a bit like you’re running your finger along extra sturdy toothbrush bristles.

Their tail – while not a weapon – does whip up and down when you pick up a crab, as if it is doing violent sit ups. It’s an effort to thrust the tail up and down in hopes you drop them back into the water so they can escape. It is a bit unnerving if you have never done it. The tail may not be a weapon but it still pinches when it whaps you in the face.

One thing you should never do is catch them or hold them by their tail. It may look sturdy, but it is very fragile and easily damaged and if injured means it cannot properly navigate the waters. The tail also has photoreceptors that allow it to sense light, helping it understand where the shore is.

Our group had arrived at the site in the dark around 9:30. We took some initial shoreline measurements and set up our equipment. Dottie – our leader from the Audubon Society – took us through the process of what was to come and gave us tons of information about the crabs. Horseshoe crabs are not really crabs at all. They’re actually closely related to scorpions. A fact that also made me grateful they do not use their tails as weapons or for defense.

The crabs only come to shore in May and June during new and full moons – leaving the safety of the deep water to make their way up the Atlantic coast to breeding grounds where they mate and spawn eggs. Lots of eggs. They arrive by the hundreds of thousands along the shallow waters along the beaches.

Male clutching onto the back of a female as she makes her way to the shore to lay her eggs

Mating is unique. Males migrate to the inshore waters first and wait for the females to arrive. The females are much larger than the males. In the shallow waters, as the females begin to make their way towards the beach, the males battle to attach their front legs to a female’s shell.

There could be a dozen males vying for one female. When the female moves onto the very edge of the water, just at the very edge of the beach, she digs a small hole (a nest) where she deposits strands and strands of eggs, sometimes thousands at a time. At the same time the male releases his sperm over the eggs to fertilize them. It is not unusual for another male to come charging in and also release his sperm over the eggs too.

You can see the tiny eggs glowing in the blacklight

Females lay as many as 4,000 eggs in one nest and will create 5 to 7 nests in one visit to the beach. Each female returns to the shore many times during spawning season.

The eggs are the size of pearl couscous, almost indistinguishable from the sand except they glow under blacklight/UV light. We saw several nests of eggs during our time on the beach.

They will hatch in 2-4 weeks, during a high tide where the eggs are covered by the water. They use the waves to carry them out to sea.

We came across a nest of early eggs who were hatching. If you were to scoop some up in your hands you would see they are shaped exactly like their parents. Tiny, miniature versions of their earlier generations.  

It’s hard to believe something so tiny will hatch and make its way to the enormous ocean to one day become a full-grown adult.

NYC Audubon has dozens of teams spread out across several sites in Queens and Brooklyn tonight and for 12 – 15 nights in total (depending on migration pattern and moon phase). These beaches have the highest densities of horseshoe crabs on the East Coast.

Our monitoring of the population is part of a statewide project to survey spawning populations. The NYC Audubon is partnering with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Marine program and Stony Brook University as well as the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation. The information is used to create conservation and management plans.

11 species of migrating birds, including several endangered and threatened ones, rely on the eggs to replenish their fat supplies as they migrate to northern breeding grounds. The horseshoe crabs and birds have developed an interesting symbiosis. Female horseshoe crabs will often dig up existing nests where all or some of the eggs did not hatch. This makes the eggs available to the birds – making it easy for the birds to get nourishment that way instead of needing to dig up fresh nests.

The crabs are threatened in many ways, all of which are human:

  • Biomedical use – Because horseshoe crab blood is copper-based and contains a special clotting component, an extract of it is used to test pharmaceuticals and medical devices for bacteria (to insure there is none). Vaccines and implants are primary areas where horseshoe crab blood is used for such testing. Pharmaceutical companies typically harvest the crabs by hand during spawning season. They transport them to labs where they are cleaned and then 1/3 of their blood is removed. After a bit of care to be sure the crab is healing, they return them about a week later to the ocean. This interferes with spawning. It is not uncommon for the crabs to die during the process.
  • Climate change is changing the temperature of the ocean, the patterns of ocean circulations, changing the temperature, height and depth of the water along the coastlines. This affects the migration and breeding of the crabs. Additionally, as humans build sea walls and other interventions to fight sea level rise, it often negatively affects their breeding grounds
  • Pollution of the water and beaches
  • Bait fisheries often harvest horseshoe crabs and cut them up to use as bait for eel. More breeding areas have been set aside as protected areas where such harvesting is not permitted, but the activity still exists.

During our count tonight we came across several crabs that had been tagged in previous years. The goal with these was to catch them to measure and inspect them, get a photograph of the tag, and then record it so it can be tracked throughout its life. One horseshoe crab we found was over 10 years old. Each of us in the group found at least one tagged specimen.

Tagging a female

After completing the counting, it was time for each of us to pick up a sample crab for measuring and tagging. I picked up a female. She was about 2 feet long and very dark, meaning old (the shells of the older crabs are darker than the younger ones). She had barnacles on her back section.

I tagged her with a tracking number and released her wondering where her journey would take her.

Making my long journey back from the beach in Queens to Manhattan NYC on the A train Subway at 1:30 in the morning, wet clothes and smelling like sea water, I was feeling exhausted, excited and amazed.

It was humbling to be able to hold and examine one of the Earth’s oldest living species – unchanged for 400 million years.

I could not help but wonder….. Horseshoe crabs have survived the prior 5 mass extinctions of Earth’s history. Even outliving the dinosaurs. Would they survive this current man-made one?

I am eager to learn more about the population pattern (increasing/decreasing) and I am already looking forward to helping out again next year!

Thank you for joining my journey this week,


If you’d like to learn more about NYC Audubon, get involved, or support their programs, please check out: Who We Are | NYC Audubon

To learn more about the New York Horseshoe Crab Monitoring Network, check out: New York Horseshoe Crab Monitoring Network (

Juneteenth Celebration

Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19th and commemorates the date in 1865 when Major General Gordon Granger told people in Galveston, Texas about President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. President Lincoln had actually signed the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery in 1863, however many southerners sought to evade the executive order by forcibly moving enslaved people to Texas, the most Western of the slaveholding states.

Image from National Museum of American History

Union troops pursued them and arrived in Galveston in the summer of 1865, finally freeing more than 250,000 Black Americans.

Enslaved people were formally emancipated, and slavery officially abolished by the 13th Amendment in December 1865.

In 2021 President Biden signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, making June 19th a Federal holiday.

The holiday not only commemorates the end of a horrific period in American history, it also 1) symbolizes the ongoing struggle for freedom and equality, 2) celebrates and draws attention to the incredible achievements of Black Americans who have shaped history, 3) highlights the resilience of Black Americans who continue to fight against the bonds of racism and advocate for systemic change, and 4) reminds us that the fight for equity and justice for Black Americans continues to wage on even today.

The struggle against racism is still felt at both the individual and systemic levels. Hundreds of years of racism did not vanish overnight with Juneteenth or the Civil Rights movement. We each have a role in working towards equality.

As a non-black ally, I found myself understanding the importance of the holiday but was unsure how to commemorate it appropriately. How could I actively participate in Juneteenth celebrations in an authentic way? What could I do beyond the celebration?

I wanted to learn more and be a stronger ally personally and professionally – beyond a weekend celebration.

My first step was getting involved in supporting the holiday by volunteering with “Juneteenth New York City” for the 14th Annual celebration in Brooklyn titled “Kaleidoscope of Black Culture” .

This 3-day event included concerts, a fashion show, a virtual summit, a “In Celebration of Black Kings” awards ceremony honoring 28 Black men from NY for their impact in the community, a day of kids’ activities, a field day, food trucks, Black-owned vendors, and more. I had registered to help on the third day of the event – which took place in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

The organizers I primarily worked with included three passionate and inspiring women: Shantel, Tyisha, and Mel. They were amazing! They ensured everyone was organized and informed of all the details prior to the event so there was no confusion on location, roles, expectations. During the event Mel was my go-to and she was perfect at answering any vendor, food truck owner, or participant questions that came my way. She also kept me focused on tasks from greeting and directing, to helping ensure the drum core team and the models for the fashion show were taken care of. And all three women were high-energy, passionate and very motivating!

The event was well-attended and there was much joyous celebration of the Black community. Because I volunteered on Sunday I was able to enjoy the DJ, hear inspiring speakers share prayer and stories, hear beautiful traditional songs, watch a fashion show, speak with a host of Black-owned small business vendors who were selling fabulous crafts, and watch an amazing young adult/teen drum core team perform. It was such an inspiring day!

As much as I enjoyed volunteering and celebrating at the event, I want my ally-ship to extend beyond a single day.

Juneteenth is great for awareness but emancipation did not instantly fix inequality for Black Americans. There is much to do to help increase equality across all groups of people in America!

From discussions with Black friends and colleagues, and through extensive research, here are some suggestions for meaningful steps and actions we can take personally (within our community) and professionally (within our workplaces) to support the Black community, bring change, and continue to boost racial equality for all.

I am also including at the bottom of this article some informative websites to become an informed, proactive ally.

I’ll be looking to expand my involvement through some of these!

As an individual:

  • Support Black-owned businesses – Get to know the black-owned businesses in your community.
  • Truly reflect on the essence of Juneteenth and what it means for Black Americans. Learn why the holiday has profound importance to them and their lived experiences. Respect the purpose – approach it with reverence and understand it is a time for Black Americans to honor their history, celebrate freedom, and reflect on the ongoing struggle for racial equity.
  • Celebrate alongside the Black community, honor the heavy history, embrace empathy as a mindset of understanding, and embrace the joyous spirit of this holiday. Juneteenth is a time for Black Joy, fellowship, and achievement – actively engage in the festivities and foster a spirit of celebration. Celebrate the achievements of Black individuals and the Black community while acknowledging the pain and impact of history extending to today.
  • Foster learning! Use Juneteenth as an opportunity for personal growth and education. Reflect on the holiday’s historical significance and deepen your understanding of its cultural importance. Listen to the stories and experiences of Black Americans. Visit Black/African American museums and cultural centers in your city/town.
  • Move beyond general awareness to personal action. Juneteenth is a celebration of freedom AND a celebration of opportunity. Read books by Black authors. Support Black non-profit organizations (financially, volunteering, etc.) and Black-owned businesses.
  • Stay aware of existing inequities and help fight to end them. For example, for two centuries our educational systems greatly neglected the Black American experience. “A 2015 study by the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Oberg Research revealed that U.S. history teachers spend only 8 to 9% of lesson time on Black history, and research suggests that what is taught centers on the trauma of slavery, the struggles of the Civil Rights movement, and mass incarceration, instead of more positive features like the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migration, and the myriad achievements and contributions of the Black community.” (1) How can we change the conversation?

At your organization/workplace:

  • Educate yourself about DEI topics such as racial injustice in the workplace.
  • Support Black team members by having them in the room during meetings (internal and client) and on teams making important decisions. Give them a voice (from business to politics).
  • Sponsor networking and training opportunities in Black communities and then hire from within those communities to help revitalize them economically.
  • Set meaningful DEI goals which create an environment where Black employees can thrive, are fairly compensated and promoted based on their value to the organization, and feel safe and empowered to bring their authentic selves to work. Address any disparities they may face. Fund resources and initiatives that expand promotion and leadership opportunities for Black and brown employees.
  • Ensure the organization takes a firm stance against racism and systematic inequity and clearly communicates the company’s anti-racist values, backing them up through actions and policies that promote diversity, equality, and inclusion.
  • Bring in speakers and provide educational resources that facilitate learning and dialogue around the history, significance, and ongoing struggles related to Juneteenth and the Black experience in America. African American history has long been distorted and it is an opportunity for truth to be shared.
  • Actively promote diversity in leadership, challenge outdated stereotypes of what a leader should look like.
  • Support and recruit at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), and Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs).
  • Celebrate Juneteenth as an organization – give employees the day off, encourage them to visit African American/Black cultural sites, bring in a speaker to share their experiences, actively foster dialog about the holiday and what it represents.

A last point for consideration when thinking about Juneteenth:

We should resist any urge to downplay the need for the holiday under the thought that it’s unfair to highlight the experience and injustices of one group when others have experienced different injustices.

Art: Dzmitry Dzemidovich purchased from iStock; Photo ID:1401009573

Instead, lean into the holiday and encourage using the power of empathy to acknowledge the experience of this particular marginalized group – enslaved Black Americans, and what their liberation meant for the country – and continues to mean today (the possibilities and opportunities as well as a humbling of the country from a horrible experience). Focus on progress made and what can come in the future and what that kind of progress means for us all.

There is room for everyone at the DEI table, and when we advocate for change, it inherently raises everyone up – creating a more inclusive environment for all. We should celebrate bringing many different perspectives and experiences into what what binds us together as a country, and focus on how bringing equality to all will create a resilient, creative, healthy, and powerful America of the future.

Notice any of the action steps suggested in the lists above can easily translate to any minority group. Helping one group will help all.

Here are a few good sources of materials for further exploration of Juneteenth, the Black experience, and the impact of Black Americans on our country:

Celebrating African American and Black heroes that shaped America from National Geographic:

Extensive materials for all ages, individuals and organizations can be found on the website for the National Museum of African History and Culture at the Smithsonian:

Teach for America has wonderful resources including teaching resources, videos, and books:

Perdue University’s on-line resources include interviews, podcasts, recipes and more:

If you have resources you can share, please submit them in the comments.

To learn more about Juneteenth NYC you can check out their FaceBook Page at:

Or you can check out their website where you can learn more and donate to support their programs:

Hope you enjoyed this week,



Understanding Community Identity Through Park Design and Stewardship

A park clean-up unveils the values, behaviors, and potential of a community

Volunteering at a local park provides a unique opportunity to see a community from a more intimate point of view. A park’s overall design, the activities offered, the special events that take place, the level of involvement by the public in its design and upkeep… these characteristics point towards the social health of a community and reveals its values and behaviors.

I volunteered to take part in a Saturday clean-up at Tompkins Square Park, a 10.5 acre park in the Alphabet City area of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I was supporting the Friends of Tompkins Square Park – a hyper-local community organization dedicated to enhancing the beauty, health, and safety of the park.

Formed a few decades ago, the group has stepped up their involvement since the COVID pandemic because NYC Parks and Recreation has faced maintenance staff shortages. The residents around the park noticed the park was falling into disrepair and saw an uptick in drug use and homelessness. Friends of Tompkins Square Park increased its involvement and oversight of the park to address these issues and provide a safe, healthy greenspace.

My responsibility for the shift that Saturday was to pick up trash anywhere on the park grounds (such as in the various flower beds and playgrounds). Other groups of volunteers helped plant flowers and mulch around the trees.

The Park as a Reflection of Community:

Examining a park’s design reveals what’s important to a community’s sense of identity – their habits, their community values, and their social structure. It also provides a peek into the future they wish to build together.

If you think about a local park near you – what could its design reveal about your community and its values? For example – How does the design impact who uses the park? Is it designed for diversity of use? Is it inclusive so all people have access to its benefits? How do people gather and interact there? What types of events are held there? How easy is it to get to and use the park?

Tompkins Square Park has a central green lawn area surrounded by winding paths lined with long benches under sun-dappled canopies of a wide variety of trees. The park includes a dog run, 3 children’s playgrounds, chess tables, ping pong tables, a handball court, and a bicycle/skateboard area. Various flower beds provide an oasis of color.  

On this Saturday, there was a children’s educational program underway – one of many workshops and events that were scheduled in the park throughout the year, including a weekly greenmarket and live music shows, among many other activities.

Tompkins Square is designed for family and individual use across a wide variety of preferred activities. It is designed as a central hub for community interaction and for use as part of a healthy lifestyle. It reflects these values of the local community and is a vibrant, healthy, well-maintained green space.

Parks Reflect Current Societal Values and Needs:

During my volunteer shift I learned about the rich history of the park and could see how the design of the park evolved based on the needs and values of the surrounding community.

For example:

In the late 1840s, as over 600,000 immigrants and their families came to live in NYC, the wealthy single-family homes around and near Tompkins Square Park were replaced and/or repurposed into multiple subdivided tenement apartments to house an influx of poor immigrants.

Example of tenements Lower East Side (source: licensing purchased from Alamy; image ID CPJ3J3)

The mostly Irish immigrants at that time were typically young, single, second-class citizens with limited education. They met, married and built families in the Lower East Side and typically worked on the nearby shipbuilding docks.

Densely packed into overcrowded apartments (it was not unusual for up to 5 families – about 20 people – to share one room that measured 12 ft x 12 ft) that lacked light, ventilation, plumbing and sanitation, this hard-working community used the park as a way to have some privacy from family and access a bit of open air. It was also an extension of their homes – livestock such as pigs roamed freely.

Churches popped up around and near the park and soup kitchens set up stations in the park to help feed the poor masses.

Drawing of Tompkins Square Park in 1891 (source: Harper’s Weekly)

Only a few decades later the neighborhood would change drastically, and the park would change too. At the end of the 1800’s, there was a huge influx of German immigrants moving into the neighborhood. Coming mostly as families, they tended to have had some schooling and brought with them their culture, including a long history of the master-journeyman trades relationship (guilds). They brought different skill sets from earlier immigrants and had different ideas about how they wanted their neighborhood to function.

Slaughterhouses, factories, beer gardens, and markets opened. Instead of working at the docks, the community was full of tailors, bakers, cabinet makers and other trades, changing the experience of daily life. These families wanted the park to reflect their values and desired experiences. They formed a community association and petitioned the City. The newly established Department of Parks (1873) revamped the entire park, adding over 450 trees, 2 fountains, benches, a variety of plants and walking paths and 160 gas lamps. The NY Public Library opened a branch along the park in 1887. In 1894 the park became the first NYC park to house a children’s playground. The park had evolved to reflect the values of the community.

Active Stewardship:

Friends of Tompkins Square Park is an example of active stewardship by the community. The group actively engages with various local schools, community groups, and non-profit organizations in their outreach, to encourage active stewardship of the park within the community. They hold regular clean-up days, including most Saturdays, and involve the community in planning local events and activities.

The group is mentored by the City Parks Foundation and works closely with the NY Department of Parks and Recreation, who is ultimately responsible for the park (and over 1,700 other parks throughout NYC).

That Saturday we picked up several bags of trash from the park.

The best part of the day was speaking with the park visitors!

One elderly patron of the park, who was feeding the pigeons when I stopped to chat, spoke about the evolution of the park. She described the park back in the 1980s when it was very different.

Dark Days for the Neighborhood Meant Dark Days for the Park

Going into the 1980s the park was in trouble. The neighborhood’s social structure had changed since the 1960s. Industries and businesses closed or moved out of the area and the neighborhood deteriorated. By the 1980s most buildings in the area were damaged. Landlords lost money as buildings went vacant and so they abandoned them, sometimes setting them on fire to collect insurance money. The homes and buildings on Avenues A and B (which face Tompkins Square Park) were burned out, boarded up and full of junkies. Graffiti was everywhere. Juvenile crime, gang violence and drug use kept people from using the park and it became a haven for homeless squatters, tent cities, gang activity, and drug use/sale.

The community was unhealthy and so was the park.

On the outskirts of the neighborhood, however, a transition was happening. Gentrification was slowly making its way around the edges of the Lower East Side.

The City wanted to step in and take the Park over, instituting a curfew and removing all the homeless and cleaning up the park. They hoped to redevelop the area and encourage a revival. Local resident groups were concerned about encroaching gentrification, and the skyrocketing housing/rent prices it would bring. They were also worried about the poor treatment of the homeless (they wanted them relocated not just removed).

There were protests and rallies in and around the park. But in August 1988, riot police moved in and cleared the homeless camps entirely. By force. Innocent bystanders were clubbed with police riot sticks. Journalists were kicked and arrested. The homeless were beaten and arrested. The next day bulldozers came in and razed everything in the park.

It was an important moment for the neighborhood. The entire event was caught on camera and video and was reported on the news, leading to further protests and rallies against the police. In the end, the City did take over the park. Soon after, it closed the park for two years while it was improved and revitalized. During that time gentrification did come to the neighborhood, changing the community as predicted.

What parks can tell us about the future of a community:

Today, Alphabet City and Tompkins Square Park are in the midst of change again. Lower crime rates and higher rents continue to take root. Some buildings have been revamped and others have been torn down and new condo and apartment buildings have been built in their place. Over the past decades immigrants were replaced by artists, poets and musicians, who in turn are now being replaced by today’s young professionals and their families. The park is once again changing to reflect the needs of the community.

Friends of Tompkins Square Park drives active community involvement in the care and future design of the park (active stewardship). It focuses on a shared responsibility for the health of the park. The group is looking to attract a larger, more diverse, membership to ensure both the group, and the park, are resilient and adaptable for the long-term. They are working to bring in artists, writers, students, skaters and musicians from around the world to expand the unique offerings of the park.

They are also working to promote conservation and a love of nature through publishing tree and foliage guides and holding a variety of workshops and events (bird-watching, insect-observing, etc.) for people of all ages. They are working with the park to host a variety of educational programs for students and children in an effort to strengthen next-generation passion for a healthy park.

These actions reflect the power of the future potential of the community and their values of conservation, shared responsibility and a desire for a permanent healthy greenspace.

It will be interesting to see how this park, and other public parks across the Nation, evolve in the years to come. What is “standard” for a park today may be completely different tomorrow as communities evolve. What does that reveal about us? Our beliefs? Our values? Our dreams?

When I registered to participate in their Saturday clean-up, I was excited to get to know a park I had not seen before. I was also looking forward to spending time in an urban green space. I did not realize how much I would learn about the building of a community and the expression of their values and passions.

I don’t think I’ll ever experience a park in quite the same way again. I’ll always be looking at the design, upkeep, and use of the park to see what they uncover about the values, behaviors and dreams of the community that supports it.

How to Get Involved in Your Favorite Park:

  • Have a favorite park near you? Do a Google search to see if there is an active community organization and get involved. It’s easy to join a park clean-up or to set one up yourself. Here is a great article by Kathryn Kellogg from her “Going Zero Waste” website (Homepage – Going Zero Waste) with step-by-step instructions on organizing your own community park clean-up: How to Host a Community Clean Up! – Going Zero Waste
  • Interested in getting to know the flora and fauna of your local park better? The Seek App by iNaturalist (by National Geographic and California Academy of Sciences) lets you snap a photo of any plant,animal, or insect on you phone, and it identifies it for you. You can earn badges and points and there’s no registration required to use the app. Check out: Seek by iNaturalist · iNaturalist
  • Looking for some family fun ideas to explore a park near you? Try my Park Bingo activity here:

I hope you enjoyed the journey this week! Thank you for coming along.

Do you have a favorite local park? Let me know which one and why in the comments!

XO – Penny

Resources and Research:

Unger, C. (2022, October 19). When Gentrification Hit the Lower East Side: There Goes the Neighborhood. Retrieved April 16, 2023, from

O’Sullivan, N. (2013, March 23). Scary tales of New York: Life in the Irish Slums. Retrieved April 16, 2023, from,immigrant%20group%20in%20the%20US%20at%20the%20time.

Moses, R. (n.d.). Kleindeutschland: Little Germany in the Lower East Side: Development of Kleindeutschland or Little Germany.

Nigro, C. (2018, June 7). Tenement Homes: The Outsized Legacy of New York’s Notoriously Cramped Apartments. Retrieved April 16, 2023, from

Van Horn, L. (n.d.). A History of Tompkins Square Park. Retrieved April 16, 2023, from

Volunteering at a Buddhist Monastery

Cleaning, Gardening and Sangha at Empty Cloud Monastery

It was time to slow down.

I had registered for a volunteer morning at the Empty Cloud Buddhist Monastery in West Orange, New Jersey.

Self-described as a “haven of peace and wisdom” open to the public, this non-sectarian Monastery hosted a variety of volunteer opportunities and public/community events, teachings, discussions, and prayer sessions.

Arriving by 8 a.m., I had brought two vegetarian desserts I’d made the night before, to offer to the Sangha (the Buddhist community) for the community meal at 11.

My liaison, Linda, was from Oregon. She was a long-time practitioner looking to move deeper into her practice (a lay person) and was part-way through a 6 month stay at the retreat where her role was the primary household support person (cooking, laundry, cleaning, coordination of volunteers and visitors, etc.).

The day I was there was during a weekend of retreat and there were 4 monks on site, as well as 3 novitiates.

The Monastery offers online and in person meditation and teaching sessions throughout the week, as well as community events on weekends.

The schedule for the monks the day I was there included:

  • The monks and novitiates waking by 5:30 a.m. for morning Puja (offering/gift) where light, incense, flowers, self-reflection, and chant mantras are offered to the Buddha.
  • Breakfast was at 7 and meditation at 8, followed by lunch at 11, then more meditation.
  • Later in the afternoon there would be a Dharma Talk – where the monks would give educational lessons to the community who had come to the Monastery for lunch.
  • More meditation and a tea in the very late afternoon brought the end of the day for the public.
  • The monks had one more set of prayers – evening prayers, before retreating to their rooms for rest.

The Monastery is a place to immerse yourself in the Dhamma (the cosmic law and order shared in the teachings of Buddha) for a period of time. I had not studied Buddhism but over the past few years I had been attending semi-regular educational sessions at the Kadampa Buddhist Learning Center in New York City. So I was very interested in learning about the practices of this non-sectarian, gender-inclusive Monastery.

After starting my day with a brief personal meditation, my volunteer activities that morning included assisting Linda in cleaning the kitchen and serving rooms and then doing some spring gardening cleaning around one of the giant outdoor statues that lined the meditation pathways.

For some of the morning I worked alongside Linda, who was happy to answer all my questions.

While working outside I was alone and so focused mindfully on the work and in quiet contemplation.

The Monastery has many books in their library to read, and many free books and literature to take home.

These lines from one of the booklets on the dining room table stuck with me that morning as I worked:

“A stone on the road that happens to meet our glance will have a claim in our attention only if it obstructs our progress or is of interest to us for some reason. Yet if we neglect these casual impressions too often, we may stumble over many stones lying on our road and also overlook many gems.”(1)

I was there for service and so focused on helping make the kitchen and serving rooms spotless. I learned the monks are not allowed to garden, to pull up weeds or dead plants, or to dig in the dirt, so the Monastery relied on volunteers to handle all of that.

The Monastery is 100% free-will donation-funded, including the land and the building, all the food, furniture, electricity… everything. There are no fees to participate in anything offered by the Monastery, including the classes (online and in person), retreats, overnight stays, and longer residences (which you can apply for as they can only take in a limited number of residences at a time).

At 11:00 it was time to clean up from my gardening and help get ready for the community meal. By this time approximately15 people from the community had arrived, each bringing with them prepared vegetarian food to share with everyone at the meal. It seemed most of the attendees regularly participated.

The food was divided into sections for organic and non-organic items and desserts were stationed together.

The monks are not allowed to take food – they can only receive what food is given to them. That meant that at the start of the meal, each visitor/participant was given a large bowl with a bit of white rice in it.

We lined up around the walls of the dining room and, as the 4 monks walked along the entire line, each of us put a scoop of rice into their bowls.

The monks then went into the serving room to be served the rest of the offered/donated foods and drinks while we made our way to the prayer room and waited for prayer.

When their bowls were full of the foods brought for the meal, the monks came to sit at the front of the prayer room on their floor mats and shared blessing and prayer chants with us.

Everyone in the room then participated in a prayer to bless the meal. Then it was time to eat!

My coconut pistachio oat cookies

The monks remained in the prayer room enjoying their meals from their floor mats in silence.

The rest of us moved to the dining room and could choose what we wanted to eat from the buffet of food brought to share.

(I’m including my recipes below for Vegan Coconut Pistachio Oat Cookies and Vegan Almond Butter Cookies in case you’d like to try them. Both seemed a big hit at the meal! You can click on the photos to enlarge them…)

Community (Sangha) is a very important aspect of life at the Monastery and throughout the day I could easily feel the strong sense of bonding between everyone. Everyone was very, very nice and open to conversation – especially during the meal.

There was much talking and sharing of ideas and questions around practice and study of Buddhist wisdom during lunch. At one point in conversation at the table, one of the lay-person participants said Buddhism is not only a religion, it is a philosophy and a psychology. It represents a variety of techniques and teachings on how to live a meaningful, happy life. After all – that’s what we all want, all of humanity – no matter where you are in the world, right? To be happy. Thus, studying the teachings of Buddha can work in tandem with your religious beliefs. I thought that was an interesting idea and it tied back to teachings I’d experienced at the Kadampa Center.

The monks are forbidden from eating anything after 12:00 noon each day. Lunch is their primary meal of the day. While they may have a small early breakfast some days, other days they may only have lunch.

Everything at every meal is donated by the community so they must eat what has been shared with them.

Each day the monks walk fully around the Monastery clockwise in silence at least once. A sacred path. I learned this is an important ritual and aspect of spiritual life because it is a way to attain spiritual and mental enlightenment.

Meditation sessions happen throughout the day.

I was able to take a few photos before the day began, as phones must be turned off for the day.

When inside, you cannot wear shoes and the monks did not wear shoes outside that day either. You also greet the monks a certain way (giving a short bow as they enter or pass with your hands together as if in prayer, held up to your chin with thumbs tucked in towards your palms).

The day was busy and slow at the same time. While I did have responsibilities such as cleaning and gardening, it was also a time for reflection.

That passage from the booklet I mentioned earlier in this blog post – the one about the stone on the road that we don’t truly notice unless it’s an obstruction and how we may stumble over many stones in our path without realizing we are overlooking gems….

Another view of part of the Monastery

I think those words spoke to me because I identify with a mind that jumps around from idea to idea looking for the next fun/enticing/exciting thing, not stopping to focus until something becomes an obstacle. And I have missed important gems (moments/feelings) when my mind is scattered and unfocused.

I don’t know if that’s what the passage was supposed to mean, but that’s what I felt when I read it.

How often do we jump from thought to thought like fireflies dancing over the grasses, without landing on something long enough to really know if it is something important? Something that could lead to a closer connection with happiness or with a purposeful life?

Instead, we look around for quick fixes and things that peak our curiosity – we are easily diverted. There is a lack of concentration. Confusion. Turbulence. But then there are those special moments of clarity that break through and speak to our hearts, our souls. Fleeting moments that surprise us with emotion. Ones we take photos of and want to remember.

But we forget that those moments are always there, always available to us everywhere. We just have to tame our mind’s wanderlust and focus on not overlooking gems. Be aware, calm your mind.

I thought about that on my walk home after the event. It was such a beautifully sunny and warm spring day that I opted not to Uber back, but to walk the 2 ½ miles and enjoy the sun on my face, the cherry trees in blossom, the first bumble bees of the season…. and think about all the gems in my life.

It is amazing how your perspective changes when you let yourself slow down.

What is a favorite memory moment that brought you awe, joy, happiness? I would love to hear it so please share it with me in the comments below!

I hope you enjoyed the journey this week.



If you’d like to learn more about the Empty Cloud Monastery, including their free on-line and in person programs, check out their website at:


(1) The Power of Mindfulness (The Buddhist Association of the United States), July 2016

Welcoming Spring: Cherry Blossom Ambassador at Branch Brook Park

Volunteering with the Branch Brook Park Alliance

Early each Spring Essex County’s Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ, lights up with millions of cherry blossoms in varied hues of gentle pinks and soft whites, heralding the end of winter.

The park is home to over 5,200 Japanese flowering cherry trees in 18 varieties.

That’s more trees than can be found in the magnificent Washington, DC display (which is about 3,600 trees).

For about 4 weeks in Spring, the trees blossom and paint the landscape with a stunning array of flowers.

How did Branch Brook Park get so many Cherry Blossom Trees?

Many of the original trees planted in Branch Brook Park (just over 2,000) were donated to the Essex County Park System by the Bamberger and Fuld family in 1927.(1)

There were several other donors over the years that donated sets of cherry trees to add to the collection and the Branch Brook Park Alliance continues to purchase and plant trees today.

While some species of cherry trees have long lives (up to 250 years), most varieties are fairly short-lived, averaging 30 – 40 years (2) which means the trees need careful care and occasional replanting for the new generations.

Who cares for the trees?

The Branch Brook Park Alliance is a public/private partnership with the Essex County Department of Parks and Recreation and Cultural Affairs. The Alliance provides ongoing stewardship to the renowned collection as well as cares for the other plants and garden areas within the park. They keep the park clean and beautiful for public use. They help provide volunteers for a variety of events in the park and have ongoing groups of volunteers who help pick up litter and do pruning and maintenance.

The park as it looks today was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1898. He was the famed landscape architect who designed Central Park in NYC. He envisioned Branch Brook as a grand, centralize park of respite for the citizens of the city of Newark.

While Central Park in NYC is known as the first landscaped park in the US, Branch Brook Park is distinguished by being the first county-run/owned park to be opened for public use in the US and it appears in the National Register of Historic Places.(3)

During the brief Cherry Tree Blossom season, which lasts approximately 3-5 weeks, the Alliance plays a key role in both maintenance/upkeep of the park and gardens, and in designing a welcoming and informative visitor experience.


I volunteered with the Branch Brook Park Alliance for a shift as a Cherry Blossom Ambassador.

My role was to welcome visitors as they strolled through the park, sharing details about the trees and the history of the park, and answering any questions they may have.

I also shared maps with them, discussed different blossom viewing areas, and provided directions to key areas such bathroom facilities, nearby restaurants/delis, etc.

And I helped collect donations for the Branch Brook Park Alliance for their educational programs, restoration and maintenance of landscapes, accessibility projects, etc.

Our team-leader and project coordinator was the head of the Branch Brook Park Alliance… Thomas. He started our shift by sharing key details about the park and the trees and getting us ready for what we should expect from the visitors. He continually checked in with the volunteers during the shift to be sure everything was going well and to help answer any visitor questions we could not answer. And people had questions about everything! From the age of some of the trees, to how they could tour the spectacular cathedral that was adjacent to the park, to where they could purchase cherry trees of their own to start a grove in a park in their town, to questions about lanternflies and other pests – Thomas had the answers to all. I learned a ton from him that day!

Most of my day was spent at the Branch Brook Park Alliance table working alongside one of the Alliance staff members. But I also had time to walk around a bit, enjoy the park, and look at the beautiful trees and flowers. Such a wonderful celebration of spring!

Cherry blossoms are an important symbol in Japanese culture. Because they only bloom for a few weeks each year, they represent renewal and the fleeting nature of life.(4)

It was sunny but very windy and chilly the day I volunteered – winter coats and scarves were a must. Winter was reluctant to let go of its grasp.

Even so, there were thousands of visitors to the park that day. Families were picnicking and having parties, groups were walking and taking photos, and children were playing on the lawns.

The blossoms were at the very beginning of opening their blooms, just peeking out, but it was still spectacular!

What does the park look like when all the trees are blooming?

Here are some photos of the park in full bloom:

As you can see from all the photos in this blog post, the flowers are amazing any time during their bloom cycle!

You can celebrate Cherry Blossom Season from wherever you are!

You don’t have to visit Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ to celebrate the season (although if you live anywhere nearby I would highly encourage you to do so). You can celebrate spring and enjoy the blooms from wherever you are with these activities:

First – learn more about the Cherry Blossoms and the Branch Brook Park Alliance, by visiting their website at:

You can also donate to support their educational programs, to maintain sustainable landscapes, and to support complex renewal projects at:

Second – You can experience the amazing Cherry Blossoms of Branch Brook Park from anywhere in the world through the Alliance’s Live Web Cam. They have two cameras set up – one on the north end of the park and one on the south, so you get great views:

Third – You can have your own Cherry Blossom Party, celebrating the arrival of spring! Here’s how:

Try a fun cherry-blossom-inspired mocktail recipe the whole family will love:

  • Pour pink lemonade into a glass about 2/3 full. Add a large scoop of pineapple sherbet into the cup. Add a few fresh cherries on the top and enjoy! If you’re super-creative, add a few spots of canned whipped cream to mimic the petals of the flowers.

Try writing a Haiku about Spring. A Haiku is a Japanese poetic form that consists of 3 lines, with 5 syllables in the first line, 7 in the second and 5 in the third. Here’s one I wrote to get your creative juices flowing:

Learn a few beautiful Japanese vocabulary words about the season:

Finally – download the coloring page below and let your imagination go wild with the colors of spring!

Author/creator of coloring page: Lena London – This coloring page is a derivative work) (tracing copy of photography work). Original image credit: Cherry blossoms in Vancouver photo by Eviatar Bach Permission: Free for personal, educational, editorial or commercial use. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License.

I hope you’ve enjoyed journeying with me and the Branch Brook Park Alliance to experience the beautiful cherry blossom trees at Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ. If you create a Haiku or color the page, share them – I’d love to see your creations!

XO XO – Penny

Citations in Article:

(1) Baker, C. (2010). Cherry Blossom Land at Branch Brook Park: A Bamberger-Fuld Legacy. AuthorHouse.

(2) Maloney, M. (2019, April 2). How Cherry Blossoms Became the Most Celebrated Event of the Spring. Town & Country. Retrieved April 3, 2023, from

(3) (n.d.). Branch Brook Park (About). Essex County Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs. Retrieved April 3, 2023, from’s,trees%20in%20the%20United%20States.

(4) Takeda, E. (2014, April 9). Significance of Sakura: Cherry Blossom Traditions in Japan. Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Retrieved April 3, 2023, from,colleagues%2C%20friends%2C%20and%20family.

Aw Shucks! Don’t Be Shy… How the Little Oyster Can Help Save NY from the Impact of Climate Change

Volunteering with the Billion Oyster Project

When you think of oysters, what comes to mind? Fresh oysters on the half shell served with horseradish or lemon or sriracha sauce?  Broiled Rockefeller style oysters, topped with herbs, butter and breadcrumbs? YUM!

What about as a keystone species that plays both an essential role in the ecosystems of shorelines, and can help solve the challenges of the impact of climate change?

The Billion Oyster Project (BOP) is focused on this unassuming, yet very powerful, resource, by pledging to restore 1 billion oysters to the NY harbor by 2035.

Since 2014 BOP has worked with various NYC communities, schools, scientists, and volunteers, to restore oysters at 18 active restoration sites across the 5 NYC boroughs.

They have developed a K-12 STEM curriculum and work with over 100 schools across NYC with hands-on activities to help students become citizen-scientists working to solve local environmental challenges.

They work with the Urban Assembly NY Harbor School, helping prepare students of the HS on Governors Island for maritime careers. And they also have involved almost 15,000 volunteers at various projects to help be part of the restoration process. Building a community focused on helping the community!

Why Oysters?

Top 3 key environmental roles the oyster plays:

  1. One single adult oyster filters up to 50 gallons of water a day! They absorb nitrates, ammonia, phosphates, plankton, and bacteria, and reduce excess algae and sediment. Oysters help keep the water clean and full of oxygen.
  2. The reefs oysters create together are natural barriers that protect shorelines from erosion, tides, and storm surge (reducing flooding, softening the blow of large waves, and preventing erosion).
  3. Like coral reefs, oyster reefs foster biodiversity by providing a 3-D living. clean, oxygen-filled habitat for hundreds of species of marine wildlife.

Back before Henry Hudson traveled up the New York river that was to eventually be given his name, oysters were everywhere and had long been a staple food of the local Lenape peoples. Archeological evidence of mounds of shells (called middens) up to 4 feet high date back to 6950 BCE (1) and reveal that oysters were not only plentiful, but were much larger than the kind we see today – up to a foot long on average and many much longer! (2) 

Oysters, Oysters Everywhere!

In the early 1600’s, with the arrival of Henry Hudson and the Europeans, the New York harbor was home to over 350 sq. miles(3) of oyster beds.

It is said, from writings at that time, it was easy to reach into the water and pluck out large oysters like fruit from a tree.

Through the late 1700s, nearly half the world’s oysters were produced in the NY Harbor.(2)

In fact, Oysters were the original street vendor food. In the mid to late 1700s and early 1800s (long before the hot dog), street cart vendors selling oysters along with hot corn, peanuts and buns, were ubiquitous throughout the streets of New York.

By 1927, however, oysters in the New York harbor were all but extinct due to:

  • Over-farming/over-consumption,
  • The expansion of NY – the dredging of the harbor and extension of the tip of NY was built over oyster beds,
  • Pollution – The drastic increase in shipping and boat traffic in the harbor along with (up until 1972, with the passage of the Clean Water Act) the dumping of millions of gallons of raw, untreated sewage in the harbor every day, killed oyster beds in droves. Note here – unfortunately NYC’s combined sewer system still ejects sewage with storm water during peak flow – once it hits 1/4 inch high – continuing to damage beds and pollute the waterways).(4) EWWW!


As a volunteer, I was signed up to help a group build oyster reef structures, called gabions, and prepare shells for the hatchery by sifting through them for unwanted debris. It was a 5-hour shift (including a lunch break). There were about 15-20 people volunteering that day.

We started the day with a group meeting where our host-leader, Inca, had us introduce ourselves and explained all about the process of growing oysters and creating a reef. They also gave us some of the history of the Billion Oyster Project. It was very interesting! Throughout the day Inca was there to give guidance and answer the tons of questions we seemed to have. They were wonderful and kept us motivated and the day exciting!

A gabion is a steel mesh cube that fits snugly into a raw bar steel frame. There are hollow columns in the middle of the structure to allow water, air, and nutrients to flow through (as well as marine life). The structure provides a strong, current-resistant, 3-D environment.

It is filled with juvenile oysters that have attached themselves to recycled oyster shells (they are called spat). The juveniles are raised in a safe environment at the Harbor School Hatchery then, once established and strong enough, moved into the gabions.

The gabions are then placed in areas where reefs are being developed. Over time, the mesh degrades, but the steel frame remains, while the newly-planted oysters grow and cement together.

Our job was to construct as many of the mesh gabions as possible during our shift. Staff from the BOP were on hand to provide educational lessons and to answer our ongoing questions.

Since 2014, BOP has restored 100 million juvenile oysters in the harbor. Over the past year or so they have found the oysters are starting to reproduce by themselves in the harbor. An exciting sign the population can become self-sustaining! In addition, BOP is now finding a wider variety of marine life around the oyster reefs, such as crabs, seahorses, pufferfish, herring, striped bass, red bearded sponges and more.

In order to grow the oysters to create the reefs, BOP needs millions and millions of shells.

So… where do all the shells come from? 

BOP partners with over 70 restaurants in NYC to collect the discarded shells of oysters consumed by their patrons.

BOP provides special buckets for collection and then partners with a shell collection service to pick them up and dump them onto long, 4-5 foot high piles of shells on Governors Island (middens).
These 70+ restaurants can donate up to 7,000 pounds of shells a week!

Since 2014 they have collected over 2+ million pounds of recycled shells, repurposing them to build the oyster reefs and keeping them out of landfills. Yet another way BOP is caring for the environment.

The second part of the volunteer shift was to help look through the middens (the piles of recycled shells donated by restaurants) for objects that don’t belong such as plastic bags and bottles, metal forks and other cutlery, rocks, etc. We also threw away any mussel shells since those would harm the oyster beds.

The middens were 4 to 5 feet tall about 25-30 feet long. They shells deposited there are first picked clean by the birds and critters and cleaned by the sun and rain. The piles are turned intermittently so they can get exposed to all that happens. They rest there about a year. Then there’s a manual cleaning with a tumbler that scrubs them the rest of the way so they are ready to be taken to the hatchery to become part of the project.

The hatchery is a set of semi-open, topless shipping containers where the baby oysters are able to latch onto the cleaned shells and grow to juveniles in a less hostile environment than the open harbor.

Harbor water still flows through the hatchery, but the hatchlings are semi-protected until they are deemed strong enough to be put into the open harbor.

By the end of the day’s volunteer shift, we’d made about 6 or 7 of the gabions and had learned tons from our BOP guide and team member.

It was a fascinating day!

I hope you enjoyed the journey with me. XO XO

How do I Learn More and Get Involved?

To learn more about the Billion Oyster Project and oyster reefs, or donate to this amazing cause, please visit their website at:

If you are a teacher and are interested in their resources and educational materials/curriculum, please check out:
(note – they have wonderful materials for every classroom – you do NOT need to be a NYC school to participate or find value in the materials)

Source Citations:

(1) Wood, S. (n.d.). Pearls of Old New York. Fraunces Tavern Museum.

(2) Nigro, C. (2011, June 2). History on the Half Shell: The Story of New York City and Its Oysters. Blog of the New York Public Library. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from

(3) Kurlansky, M. (2007). The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell. Random House Trade Paperback.

(4) Hynes, T. (2022, August 4). Aw Shucks: The Tragic History of New York City Oysters. Untapped New York. Retrieved April 2, 2023, from

(5) Ellis, E. R. (2004). Epic of New York City: A Narrative History. Basic Books, Reprint Edition.‎ 978-0786714360

Killer Whale Sighting with Zooniverse

Historically, Steller Sea Lions were highly abundant along Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, a chain of islands that straddle the northernmost part of the North Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea.

For generations, Alaskan indigenous peoples hunted them for meat, hides, oil and other products and to this day they remain an important subsistence resource.

Photo from Killer Whale Project Education Page

In addition, Steller Sea Lions play an important part in the ecosystem of the land and waters of the area. They help balance the food web.

For example, Stellar Sea Lions are top predators who eat a variety of other species that eat salmon. Without Sea Lions the salmon population would dwindle.

Sea Lions also turnover the bottom substrate layer (ocean floor) in their search for various prey. This allows the turnover of various nutrients (nutrient recycling) that feed smaller species that fish then feed on, only to be eaten by larger fish…. and so on up the chain.

Their lives on the rocky shores means nutrients, prey remains, and se lion pool leave nutrient-rich patches for the growth of algae which feeds small crustaceans and a variety of birds.

Stellar sea lions are exposed to a variety of threats such as:

  • Increasing annual commercial fishery (leads to overall reduction in amount of prey available and a change in prey size as fish are captured before reaching full maturity)
  • Sea level rise from climate change (leading to loss of habitat access to terrestrial rookery sites)
  • Temperature rise from climate change (warmer oceans and changing patterns of natural phenomena, such as El Nino, lead to increase in harmful/toxic algae blooms, effecting distribution, variety and abundance of prey)
  • Human (tourist) disturbance through power boats, kayaks, hiking, paddleboards and flying drones (incursion into sea lion areas disturbs nesting sites, interrupts mating, nursing, resting and socializing, and can cause mass stampedes from land into water where juveniles are injured or killed)
  • Increased oil and gas activity from tankering and pipeline transport (leaves toxic substances in the waters)
  • Entanglement in marine debris, fishing line, and ingestion of fishing gear
  • Increase in Orca whale populations over the past decades (sea lions are a primary food source for these whales)

Due to these threats the Stellar Sea Lion population has experienced a population decline of as much as 80 – 90% since the 1990s(1) and the species is listed as endangered.

Photo from Killer Whale Count Zooniverse site

The Killer Whale Count is a collaborative project run by a trio of professionals: a Marine Science PhD student, a Research biologist, and a Conservation biologist, and supported by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the University of Canterbury (New Zealand).

The objective of the study is to assess the potential impact of Orca whales (Orcinus orca) – also known as Killer Whales – predation on the Stellar sea lion colony populations of the western range of the Aleutian Islands.

The research projects focuses solely on the impact of this particular threat facing the sea lion population.

The study involves sets of citizen scientists looking through almost 1 million photographs taken by remote cameras between 2016 and 2019 and identifying any sightings of Orcas. This huge dataset of photos were taken by cameras installed at various sites in the Aleutian Islands.

Some of the cameras were installed to look over mostly land (edge of shore) to identify and monitor Stellar Sea Lion populations. These photographs also can be used to identify opportunistic images of Orcas in the nearby water.

Other remote camera boxes were placed around the sea lion populations and aimed at the water to increase the chances of capturing an image with an Orca.

The Team leading the study partnered with Zooniverse – the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research ( It focuses on accomplishing scientific research using volunteers, enabling projects that may not have been possible, or practical, without access to unlimited volunteer citizen-scientists.

Zooniverse Project List Home Screen

Zooniverse has a wide-ranging and ever-expanding suite of available projects run by scientists and researchers from every industry and discipline, with topics across all sciences and humanities. So it’s easy to find a project for a topic you are passionate about.

With help of Zooniverse volunteers, researchers can analyze large sets of data quickly and accurately.  Projects run through Zooniverse volunteers have discovered interesting discoveries and produced a large number of published research papers. Research that has had impact on the world (check out:, as well as produced many open-source sets of analyzed data future projects can rely on to boost their progress.

What’s amazing is that it can be done through a computer or your phone from anywhere and it’s easy to do it as a group, in a class, etc. Plus, as a volunteer for a specific project, you can chat with the scientist Team and other volunteers and you are kept up to date on research findings. It is easy to see the tangible results of your impact!

Once you sign up for a project you are provided a short, helpful, educational self-paced study guide that trains you on how to do the project and provides interesting contextual information.

For the Killer Whale Project, I would be given randomly selected photographs from their dataset to review. I was to find, mark and count the Orca sightings in the images. I was given specific instructions with multiple examples of what to look for and how to mark the photographs. I also had access to a field guide for killer whale identification.

Their training and FAQ sections highlighted tips and tricks and common misidentification errors. A nice social aspect of the project was the ability to “favorite” any photographs so other volunteers, and the research team, could see them.

I started with about 75 photos. The photos are given to you one at a time and you can do as many, or as few, as you would like. One day I could only look at a few. Another day I had time to look through a few dozen.

I saw seals in most of the photos but no whales at first. I could, however, see photos of other participants, and those provided by the scientific team, which showed whale sightings. It was fun to see the seals and know I was part of a team of citizen scientists making a difference.

Could the scientist and research team have used machine learning and AI (Artificial Intelligence) to do this task instead of volunteers? Yes. But it would take time to set up the testing and one of their goals is to work on a citizen science project to promote outreach, raise awareness of human impact on nature, and get others involved in helping an important endangered species.

Since I started working through the photographs, I find myself coming back to do more whenever I have down time. I’ve found it especially helpful as a way to relax after a stressful day at work or when I cannot sleep at night. Participating in the project led me to do a bit of research on Stellar Sea Lions and Killer Whales, which I enjoyed and found fascinating. And through the project I feel connected to something bigger. It’s as if, from my own little corner of the universe, I’m doing something useful for the future of this great planet.

I am eager to see the research findings when the project is complete!

I also saw many other Zooniverse projects that interested me so I have a feeling I’ll be participating in others.

If you are interested in learning more about the Killer Whale Project, check out the project link at:

If you are curious about the types of projects available through Zooniverse and want to be a citizen-scientist yourself, or with your family or through your child(ren)’s school, check out the Zooniverse project site at:

It’s definitely fun to look through the current projects. There are dozens of them. If you see one that interests you, drop a note in the comments below. I would love to see what interests you!

Thank you for journeying along with me,

XO XO Penny

Helping Under-Resourced Schools in NYC with Project Cicero’s Passion for Reading

The first time I purchased a book of my own I was 8 years old. My grandfather had given my brother and I $3 each as a holiday gift and my mom took us to the local Toys R Us Superstore and told us we could buy whatever we wanted with our money.

8 year old me with my brother…. and my two favorite books

Money of our own for the first time – we felt like millionaires! I spent .95 cents on “A Cricket in Times Square” and $1.75 on “A Wrinkle in Time.” 

The books were a little ahead of my reading ability, but I loved them anyway. I was so proud of them!

I carried them with me everywhere and read them over and over again as soon as I could. I still have them displayed proudly on my shelf today.

Books opened a world of imagination, curiosity, learning, and adventure I am still passionate about.

Project Cicero fuels that kind of love and passion in children across the 5 Boroughs of NYC through an annual, free for teachers, massive book distribution event.

Leading up to the event, Project Cicero collects new and gently used book donations and co-host book drives run by over 100+ New York City independent, public, and parochial schools.

They also accept larger book volume donations by local organizations and have an Amazon WishList for anyone looking to donate specific books.

The books are transported to a distribution site where hundreds of student, parent, and teacher volunteers unpack and sort the books, then get them ready for display. Tens of thousands of books are collected for the event.

NYC public school teachers register to attend. At the event, the books are laid out by category and/or reader age (board books, geography, foreign language, reference, STEM, young adult fiction, etc.).

Ready for the teachers!

Teachers can spend as much time as they’d like perusing the tables and racks, and they can take as many books as they can carry back to their classrooms and schools. All the books are free.

Over 2,000 teachers registered for this year’s event, most of whom come with rolling, large-sized luggage and other wheeled containers they can completely fill with books for their students.

Teachers come with lists in hand of subjects, book titles, and genres of books they’d like to have for their classrooms/school libraries. Some of the board members of Project Cicero, and many of the volunteers, are either current or prior educators and are available to help teachers make good choices for their students.

Project Cicero is a non-profit aimed at solving inequality of resources in New York City public schools. Their event is aimed primarily at providing books to teachers at Title 1 Schools. These are schools where at least 40% of their students come from low-income families.

There are over 1800 public schools across the 5 boroughs of NYC and over 1200 of them receive Title 1 funding (1)

We learned that teachers do not only bring books back for their classroom and school libraries. They also will select books to use as rewards and incentives since many children’s families cannot afford to buy books. And they often choose books to supplement curriculum or to provide new experiences for their students.

I volunteered one of the days leading up to the event and spent my shift sorting, unpacking and repacking books.

There were boxes of donations piled high and tables were already pre-filled with books for the upcoming event.

Project Cicero encourages groups of volunteers from companies and even groups of students to come volunteer together and make a difference.

In addition, students can help organize and work at their own schools’ book drives.

Since its inception in 2001, Project Cicero has distributed over 4,000,000 new and gently-used books to tens of thousands of New York City classrooms, reaching over 1,000,000 students!

Donated books not good for use in the event (because they are too worn/damaged, or are textbooks that are too outdated, etc.) are recycled.

After the event, any books remaining that were not chosen and are of good quality are donated to local organizations for their use and distribution. They try to bring in all new stock every year.

Project Cicero was one of 33 organizations included in the NYC Materials Exchange Development Program’s inaugural study and continues to be recognized as a major re-user/recycler in New York City.

In 2020 alone, Project Cicero reused 68,308 pounds of material — saving it from landfills.

The organization is named in honor of the Roman writer, statesman, orator, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, who created extensive libraries in the first century BC.

He shared his love of literature and learning, just like Project Cicero seeks to do. Cicero is credited with the quote, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

Photo 242928770 / Cicero © Izanbar |

Project Cicero is helping improve reading skills and reading levels, introduce students to new subject matter, increase enjoyment of reading, and inspire the love of a good book…. their goal to ensure every student has access to books is inspirational!

What was your favorite book as a child? Let me know in the comments below!

Would you like to learn more about Project Cicero?

Check out their website at:

Want to participate in donating books to Title 1 schools in NYC? 

To purchase books from the wish list, visit

Interested in helping your child’s teacher or school set up an Amazon WishList of their own to share with the school families and community?  

I put together some simple directions you can download below.

THANK YOU for joining my journey! XO XO


(1) (2018, September 15). More Schools Eligible, Less Aid Available. New York City Independent Budget Office. Retrieved March 10, 2023, from

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