Unlike other local organizations, which are just now waking up after over a year of closures and online approximations of their services, County Park Friends got busy implementing plans that had been pre-pandemic pipe dreams.
Mariah Roberts, Executive Director of County Park Friends, has a unique view from her corner of the pandemic. As someone who ‘activates’ outdoor programs, she suddenly found her organization front and center when other organizations were shut down.
“What we’re tasked with doing, and got funding to do, was to activate parks through health and wellness and focus on communities that haven’t been able to access existing resources historically,” she explains. “Because we were already working in the spaces that basically have the most safety [in regards to Covid], we were able to pilot these different projects and interfaces with community groups during the pandemic, which is just unheard of.”
Unlike other local organizations, which are just now waking up after over a year of closures and online approximations of their services, County Park Friends got busy implementing plans that had been pre-pandemic pipe dreams. Their self-guided Art Hikes were inspired by Carlos Campos, a filmmaker and community leader from Watsonville. Campos had the idea of artist-created frames that would encourage thoughtful interaction between the community and its environment.
“The idea was, our job is to get the best ideas from these incredible leaders who we’ve managed to capture some of their time [during Covid],” Mariah explains. “What are those ideas that they have that there’s never the money to build out, there’s never the infrastructure or the support? Let’s build them out!”
Each frame installation includes artists’ take on the theme of interacting with and understanding the environment. For example, when visitors interact with Watsonville Frame #4, painted by artist Priscilla Martinez, they gaze through a chain link fence at one of the few soccer fields available to the community in Watsonville.
The Outdoors to Heal program provides fully bilingual activities for families, adults, and children at parks around the county. The Friends also helped implement programs directly benefiting communities of color in the county, working with the expertise of Cat Willis of Black Health Matters and Aniko Millan, the first Black Senior Ranger in Santa Clara County, who is retired and lives in Santa Cruz.
“Our job is not to come up with the ideas—our job is to be the roadies for our community leaders,” Mariah explains. “We’re really good at getting stuff done!”
On the home front, Mariah says that she was lucky that the pandemic fell when it did, as her teen children were ready to take on more independence and her traveling husband got much-needed time at home to spend time with family.
“ If [my kids] had been three years younger it would have been a whole different world for me as a mom,” Mariah says. “I felt like I had bandwidth as a professional that many of the people I work with did not have.”
And our community has benefited from the support she had at home. Mariah was able to see the opportunities that the pandemic created, even in the midst of all of the suffering.
“I have a sense of visceral urgency—but not in a stressful way, a sense of visceral urgency to act. We watched our entire world shift and respond and change and grow and shrink, and we can do it,” she says.
Mariah’s fondest memory of home during the pandemic was when her daughter organized a Quarantine Olympics, with each family member representing countries from their heritage: Norway, Yugoslavia, Switzerland, and Wales. Her daughter made flag outfits and headbands, and they competed in games that she devised.
“It was so funny,” Mariah remembers. “We were bickering and also laughing. We had the time of our lives—it was the perfect pandemic experience.”
Learn more about County Park Friends’ activities and Art Hikes at www.CountyParkFriends.org.