Mira Dorrance-Bird | Sonoma Valley Sun
For newly installed Executive Director Van Wyk, her job at Jack London State Historical Park is not just about keeping the park open, but helping it reach it’s full potential.
“Parks can be a really inspirational place to develop community and social ties,” she believes. “We’re creating community so that people of all ages and backgrounds can come experience the outdoors, have a lot of fun and learn something, and leave inspired.”
Nearly five months have passed since the state handed over management of Jack London State Historic Park to the Jack London Park Partners (JLPP), an element of the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association. When the contract took effect on May 1, the organization was faced with the difficult task of working out administrative details and figuring out how to manage the park without state funds.
Now that they’ve settled in, Van Wyk, says the work is focused toward revitalizing the park and elevating its status to what she calls an “integral community resource.”
“Parks in the past I think have sort of been viewed as places that you come and experience something that the park has to offer, in most cases just the beautiful, pristine wilderness areas. But I think that parks are actually a natural venue for gathering community,” she explains.
Although the park has approximately 65,000 visitors a year, most of them are tourists. In an effort to encourage repeat visitation from community members, the park hosts an array of events ranging from piano concerts on Charmian London’s 1901 Steinway, to a lecture series by notable authors focusing on cultural aspects of Jack London’s work, to movie screenings of films based on Jack London’s stories at the Winery Ruins.
The organization is also reviving dozens of neglected trails, marred by erosion and dead ends, which are being cleaned up and made safe for recreational use. “They take you through some of the most magnificent areas that I’ve ever seen. The views are drop-dead breathtaking,” said Van Wyk, going on to describe ancient redwoods, an historic heirloom orchard, an impressive summit from which most of Sonoma County can be viewed, and what remains of a man-made lake built by Jack London, which she hopes they will be able to restore using funds from Prop 84.
There are also has plans to improve outreach to youth. One of these projects is an integrated environmental education program geared toward at-risk and underserved youth, intended to bring young people who might not otherwise consider the outdoors as a recreational pursuit out into nature.
“Our hope is that not only will they get physical exercise, but that through this they’ll learn teamwork, cooperation, and leadership skills that in the future create a diverse population of environmental stewards,” she said.
And to tie it all together, the program’s activities will include maintenance of the park’s trails, bringing the park closer to the self-sustaining model Jack London Park Partners is striving for.
The financial picture is always an issue. The park is no longer a recipient of designated state funds, and thus, relies entirely on donations from individuals and foundations. “One of the challenges that occurred early on for us was the disclosure of hidden funds,” said Van Wyk, referring to $54 million of hidden funds that were recently disclosed by the state Department of Parks and Recreation — news that led many to believe that their donations were no longer needed.
Because events are labor intensive and donations from foundations and businesses are a finite resource, Van Wyk says individual donations make up the bulk of park funding. “The majority of our funds are going to be raised from individuals who may be interested in becoming a member, or might want to support a bigger project, for example our school program,” said Van Wyk. “But the bottom line that everybody needs to understand is that for this to become a self-sustaining operation it needs to be something that’s embraced by not only individuals but foundations, local businesses, and corporations, and so our job is to create that model.”
With only eight staff, six of which are part-time, volunteers are the lifeblood of the park. “Most of them are here as part of a resolute commitment to keep parks open and they will do anything. From sweeping the floors, to cleaning the artifacts, to stuffing envelopes, to leading docent tours, to driving golf carts, to patrolling the trails, to managing the cottage, the kiosk, the museum, we couldn’t do it without them. They’re fabulous, they’re absolutely incredible people.”
For information on upcoming events, organized hikes, tours, and more, or for information on how to become a volunteer or make a donation, visit www.jacklondonpark.com or call 938-5216.