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Restoring, Building Communities One Park at a Time

FOTP photo of the playground

The construction of a new playground in Grand Crossing Park on Chicago’s South Side is the site of the first community building project in a decade, and no one could be happier about it than Friends of the Parks’ Director of neighborhood parks and community relations Maria Stone.

“This project took about a year to put together,” said Stone, a 34-year-old Pennsylvania native. “Friends of the Parks worked with Kohl’s department stores and Children’s Memorial Hospital along with local legislators to secure $250,000 to build this park. We also coordinated with the Grand Crossing Park Advisory Council to get community volunteers to help construct the new playground.”

CeCe Edwards, Grand Crossing Park Advisory Council president, said Stone’s office worked with them and the Chicago Park District to make this project a reality.[youtube][/youtube]

“We need programs, we need mentors and volunteers; we need a lot of things the community people are not up on yet because the park was off the radar screen and now we got it back thanks to Friends of the Park,” said Edwards.

“One of the things my office does is help communities establish park advisory councils. I meet with concerned citizens in the neighborhood and help educate them on how to be an advocate for their parks,” said Stone. “Once a council is registered with the Chicago Park District and they start having board meetings, issues in the park such as broken swings, broken water fountains or vandalism are addressed and brought to Friends of the Parks’ attention. We, as the middleman, bring it to the Park District’s attention and make sure they do something about it.”

Stone, an impressive and energetic lady who holds a master’s degree in public administration from DePaul University, didn’t know a lot about Chicago’s rich park history before joining Friends of the Park.

“When I interned for the Chicago Park District’s Forests Initiative Program, there was a program where we served as a watchdog for the Cook County Forest Preserve,” said Stone. “We saved parcels of land from being taken and influenced the purchase of land so the Forest Preserve could increase the acreage of land they had.”

Taking on the responsibility of helping others make a difference in their communities has been a passion of Stone’s all her life.

“When I was younger, my mother would encourage my sister and me to volunteer on Thanksgiving, feed the homeless in Philadelphia. Those experiences helped guide us into realizing there’s a bigger world out there and we need to do something to help,” said Stone. “I am Ukrainian and growing up I was a member of a Ukrainian youth group where we were always doing things to help others, like doing clean ups in the park or raising money for Ukrainian projects. When I graduated and thought about a career path, I decided I wanted to do something where I could help people.”

“This job is a natural progression of how she lives her life,” said Kandy Christensen, Stone’s close friend and fellow Zumba, flamenco and ballet enthusiast. “Maria has a passion for leaving a positive footprint in the world. She’s always working on gardens, supporting local organic industries. She cares a lot about others and always tries to think of ways to incorporate fun stuff, such as kickball and sports programs, into the parks.”

“My job at Friends of the Park is so interesting. Everyday there’s something new,” said Stone. “Yesterday, I met with parks people from Milwaukee and learning about their Friends of the Park organization. Next week, I have a community meeting with Dvorak Park residents (a neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side) to help them start a park advisory council. It feels good to end my day knowing I did something to help somebody and make the parks better at the same time.”

Residents and community volunteers at Grand Crossing Park playground rehabilitation project appreciate the work Stone does on behalf of Friends of the Parks.

“A lot of community volunteers helped with the mulching and installation of new slides and swings. They’re excited to receive something so great with the help of Friends of the Parks,” said Datia Williams, a volunteer who grew up in the area. “Having something new in the community shows there is someone who cares about you. I think the good work being done here today will help the people in the community going forward.”

The biggest fans and advocates of community building projects like this are the children in the neighborhood who play in the parks.

“I used to hate it when other people say ‘You have a messed up, jacked up park. Your park is horrible.’ But now, we can finally say our park looks better than yours and we did it ourselves,” said Aaron Reese, 14, Henry Tanner Elementary School student and park patron.

And Stone likes the sound of that.


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