For over a century, Central Park has served as an iconic locale for New Yorkers and tourists alike. The sanctuary from city life wouldn’t be the beautiful landmark that it is without the help of the Central Park Conservancy, including devoted volunteer Leslie Kraus.
Inspired to start helping out after finding comfort in the park during the COVID-19 pandemic, Leslie has served the Conservancy since 2020. Three to five times a week, she enters the park to perform any needed maintenance, whether that be weeding, planting, raking, shoveling snow or whatever the season requires. Despite her initial lack of gardening experience, the native New Yorker has grown into an accomplished and integral groundskeeper for Central Park’s 840 acres.
Describe your volunteer role with the Central Park Conservancy.
As a volunteer, I assist Central Park Conservancy in preserving and celebrating Central Park as a sanctuary from the pace and pressures of city life, enhancing the enjoyment and well-being of all. We all work year round, and we help with the staff in whatever projects are needed, especially depending on the time of the year. In the summer, we’re mostly doing weeding, pruning, a little bit of planting; in the fall it’s very much raking; in the winter it’s raking, shoveling snow and chipping ice; and in the spring, we swing back into weeding, planting, pruning — whatever is happening at that point and whatever the needs are.
What inspired you to start volunteering in this way?
The park was always a place of joy and recreation for me growing up in New York City. During the pandemic, I was mesmerized by the seemingly natural beauty of the park and fascinated by all the various species of trees. I knew then that I wanted to help maintain this space and learn more about the inner workings that result in this effortless beauty.
What about this work brings you back each week?
I think it started very much in being a very safe space during the pandemic. It was a way to be outdoors. We were the epicenter in the beginning, so it was a little bit scary. Being in a big, populated city, it was very hard to feel safe walking around with everyone. It was a real safe space, and it was a great way to do things, be with people, be socially distant and appropriate and get out to enjoy the fresh air and the beauty of the park. The more I became trained, comfortable and confident in what I was doing, the more I discovered a huge passion for gardening and playing in the park and fixing landscapes and whatever was required. There’s something very invigorating and enhancing about being out in the fresh air with the blue skies, making a huge difference, and then enjoying it.
What do you think Central Park means to your community?
I think Central Park is a sanctuary and a beautiful safe haven to spend the day and enjoy all the different landscapes, be it walking, running, bicycling and picnicking, depending on the time of year. For tourists, there are great attractions throughout the park and natural landscapes and statues. It’s really an amazing space.
Have any memories from your time volunteering really stuck with you?
We were pruning and shaping this area of forsythia bushes. Each of us was given direction of how much to cut back the bush and how to shape it, and the overall effect we were trying to achieve.… At the end, not only was my forsythia bush exactly how I envisioned and was told to make it, but there was a whole landscape of about eight of them. They all looked similar but different depending on the size and shape of these bushes, and yet the area looked like we were all professionals. Oftentimes when different people are doing different things, it doesn’t exactly look the same, but it really did. I thought that was so amazing, to be taught that and then given the skills and ability and autonomy to really complete my own little piece and have the confidence and ability to do it.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
The most rewarding is really when we’re working on clearing an area, and the patrons of the park — especially the neighborhood people — will stop, admire and recognize our work, really thank us for transforming a landscape that might look a little neglected or wanting of revitalization and really appreciate that we were in there and made that difference.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I think they can make a difference in their local park and garden. If they’re in this area, anyone can help keep Central Park beautiful. I think that it’s a great opportunity. Anyone can either volunteer in Central Park through the Central Park Conservancy’s website or do what they can do in their own neighborhood or wherever they’re at. I think there’s something about being in touch with the earth and with these magnificent vistas, especially right now with global warming — to see how the trees take in all the carbon dioxide and give back out and clean all our air, and how these ecosystems help the bees and butterflies survive. I think it’s a very positive need, especially with everything that’s going on in the world today.
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
I think there’s a lot of things we should be thankful and grateful for. Anytime we can take some of our valuable time and help and give back and do something, that’s very important. It anchors us to appreciate how much we have and how really rewarding it is to give back and share some of our good fortune.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Leslie? Find local volunteer opportunities.