Delaware State Parks friends groups, totaling 14 throughout the state with 3,500 members, play a vital—and often overlooked—role
It’s a rare group of people who make the biggest difference but intentionally remain tucked away out of the spotlight. Delaware State Parks friends groups are made up of those kind of people.
There’s the friendly supervisor standing under the scorching summer sun overseeing the Borrow-a-Bike station at Cape Henlopen State Park; the people contributing hours to launch and continue annual chocolate tastings or bike rallies at Trap Pond State Park, and the folks who raise funds and organize huge events like Bellevue State Park’s 40th anniversary celebration on July 2.
The anonymous volunteers who perform these tasks and many more are members of the Friends of Delaware State Parks, a 30-year-old program that is an absolute necessity to keep the parks functioning.
The state has 14 friends groups—all independent, nonprofit entities ranging in purpose from supporting state parks to preserving coastal areas. Not only do friends group members volunteer their time, but they are the fundraisers and advocates who promote, and when necessary, fight for funding on behalf of their parks. Their membership includes retirees and working professionals from various backgrounds, but they are all zealously dedicated to their parks.
While all volunteers play important roles at the state’s parks, friends groups differ from “regular” volunteers by their sheer volume of work. Delaware’s 3,500 friends volunteers put in more than 14,000 hours annually.
Says Glen Stubbolo, Delaware State Parks chief of Volunteer and Community Involvement: “Our friends do so much, and I know they’re not even reporting all hours to us. Many members would tell you they’re just doing it for the park. Delaware is full of these people, who simply just love their parks.”
The role of the friends goes deeper still when you realize that, as an entity, Delaware State Parks receives only about 30 percent of its funding from the state, leaving more than half of the responsibility to the parks and subsequently, friends groups.
Selling Wood—and Wine
Each friends group is structured similarly, with a board and elected officials, and each group interacts closely with state park superintendents, who officially approve or reject propositions, though rejections are rare.
Projects can be as unglamorous as bundling and selling wood from trees knocked down by a bad storm to obtaining bartending licenses and hosting al fresco wine nights. Such is the case for the Friends of Bellevue State Park, where, for the past six years, President Wilma Yu has worked with her small—but mighty—group of 10 volunteers.
“They’re people that really love the park. People come into it with interest in particular areas, and just go for it,” says Yu.
Interest and projects include gardening, working with Bellevue’s equestrian center, road cleanup, obtaining grants, doing restoration work, helping with major events like last year’s Dogfish Head Analog-A-Go-Go, helming the entire Bellevue 40th anniversary celebration, and more. Friends are out at Bellevue during their sponsored and self-run summer concert series every Thursday and Sunday evening, from 5-9 p.m., too.
“They’re such a crazy force,” says Yu.
This enthusiasm stretches across the state. Stubbolo says some of the most ambitious projects to date include the Fort Miles Historical Association’s World War II Fort Miles Museum and refurbished Battery 519. Once completed in the next few years, the museum will be the best in the United States that is located at an authentic World War II Army base.
The list also includes creation of a nature center spurred by Friends of Cape Henlopen State Park, and a multi-year redesign of the Brandywine Zoo, through the Delaware Zoological Society, which Stubbolo calls “a friend and a partner.”
One of the most successful facilities provided by Friends of Cape Henlopen is the free Borrow-a-Bike program, which has become so popular that two other friends groups have adopted the concept. It allows people to borrow a bike to ride within the park and see the sights for up to two hours. Since its start in 1997, Borrow-a-Bike has been operated by friends volunteers and funded by donations. In 2014, bikes were borrowed by more than 13,000 people, and the number rose to more than 14,500 the following year.
“There’s no lack of initiative,” says Stubbolo. “But the small projects are important, too, like at Brandywine, with the creation of a nature play area. It’s all important to us.”
Debbie Chiczewski, Friends of White Clay Creek State Park president, leads 75 volunteers and was the driving force behind applying for and receiving multiple grants totaling more than $20,000 from Christiana REI. Bike repair stations have been installed in three locations throughout the park—at the Judge Morris Estate, Nine Foot Road and the Nature Center. A primitive camp is also in the works.
Additionally, the friends group helps with construction and maintenance of the trails in partnership with Delaware Trail Spinners. The group provides scholarships for park environmental programs for disadvantaged children, which of course requires fundraising.
They also advocate for the preservation of land, organize free summer concerts held at White Clay on Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. at the Carpenter Recreation Area on Rt. 896, and take care of a slew of other details and responsibilities.
Why do all of this for free—especially on behalf of a government entity that arguably should be doing the work?
“You’re out there and you see people enjoying themselves,” Yu says. “You see a 90-year-old lady dancing to the music at a concert, or the joy that people have as they watch little kids as they learn something and their eyes grow big. Those are the rewards.”
That’s not to say there aren’t the usual bureaucratic roadblocks.
“I’ll be honest, there is absolutely frustration,” Yu says. “You always have to be working through the system, and no matter what you do it’s going to take twice as long. You have to make sure everything meets all the regulations, the laws, the ADA compliance, ugh, the bureaucratic chain that has to be satisfied in order to accomplish things can be really trying. We get our frustrations out, sit down and gripe about it, then say, ‘How can we work through this?’”
Statewide Legislative Advocacy
Living in a small state has its benefits, and is something that separates Delaware’s friends groups from other states, according to Stubbolo. While friends groups elsewhere typically function in relative isolation, here, a president in northern Delaware will drive a relatively short distance to chat with a president in Sussex.
The chain of communication is strong between groups, and when legislative cutbacks started to hit the parks a few years ago, they united to form a statewide coalition to show their own power in numbers.
Stubbolo says Yu is the linchpin for the statewide group, which primarily focuses on legislative-level advocacy, contacting elected officials and educating them on the importance of state parks and the economic benefits of parks to the state.
“Many had no idea how many historical preservation, education programs, and all the recreational opportunities that existed,” says Yu. “There are some who are very invested, but there are many who didn’t see parks as a priority until we spoke with them.”
The friends advocacy efforts generated more than $5 million through suggested investment practices (Bill 75) and sponsorships and donations (Bill 88).
Yu, Chiczewski and the other members of the friends groups shrug off any praise for their service.
“We enjoy it,” says Yu. “We do it because we want to.”
Then she points out the obvious: “If the same attitude of comradery and purpose of our statewide friends groups was universal, the world would be a much better place.”