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Claremont Park Blooms With Help from Longtime Volunteer

By Patrick Wall | April 23, 2013 7:17am

CLAREMONT — Like the flowers she plants there, Debra Myers blossoms inside Claremont Park.

On a Sunday stroll through the 39-acre park just blocks from Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, Myers greeted passersby — “God bless!” to one man, “Hola!” to a Spanish-speaking family — as she praised the chirping birds and towering trees.

“The art of nature!” she said.

Every corner of Claremont Park stirred memories of her three decades visiting it: the pool where her children learned to swim, the baseball field where she became the first female team manager in her son’s Little League. Her team, the Raiders, won the championships that year.

Several years ago, Myers, who lives up the street from the park, founded a volunteer group to care for it and several adjacent traffic islands, called the Mount Eden Malls. In recent years, she has also volunteered at the parks around Yankee Stadium.

 Many newer park users prefer soccer over basketball and handball.
Many newer park users prefer soccer over basketball and handball.
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When maintenance lagged at Claremont a few years ago and the park earned a “D-” on a report card issued by the advocacy group New Yorkers for Parks, Myers reenergized the Claremont group and revamped the park.

This year, it earned a “B.”

“Was Rome built in a day? No,” said Myers, who will receive a volunteer award from the advocacy group on Tuesday. “But, I’m telling you, we’re a long way from where we used to be.”

As a child in the 1960s, Myers planted flowers with her mother outside their home in rural South Carolina. But when her mother died when Myers was 6 years old, she was sent to Harlem, where she traded her private garden for asphalt.

“I felt alienated,” she said. “I felt like a child without a voice.”

Later, she moved to Mount Eden, where she raised four children by herself. For their sake, she sought to improve the neighborhood.

She's worked in partnerships with other parents to push for better schools, joined with fellow tenants to demand repairs in their housing, and established bonds with business owners and building superintendents to clean the streets and sidewalks.

“The word ‘can’t’ is not in my vocabulary,” she said.

Beginning in the late 1990s, she shifted her activism to Claremont Park and other local green spaces, which she believes function as community hubs that unite residents, promote healthy living and keep kids out of trouble and full of local pride.

Myers enlisted neighborhood volunteers to help remove trash and weeds, paint benches and plant flowers, eventually forming the group Friends of Claremont Park and the Mount Eden Malls.

She also secured outside support, including $500,000 in City Council funds for cleanup work and also has obtained more than 4,100 daffodil bulbs since 2002 through a New Yorkers for Parks program.

Still, by 2010, when the same group sent surveyors to the city’s large parks, they found “an extraordinary amount” of litter, glass shards and weeds scattered across Claremont Park’s lawns, paths and sport fields — signs that the park was understaffed and volunteer efforts had fallen off.

“It was really a case of not having enough day-to-day stewardship and care,” said New Yorkers for Parks Executive Director Holly Leicht.

Galled by the low grade, Myers discussed the report with the local community board, elected officials and Parks Department officials.

She also rallied her core crew of two dozen neighborhood volunteers and helped, along with Parks staff, to host cleanup days that brought in corporate and nonprofit volunteer groups.

The park’s report card score leapt from 62 in 2010 to 85 this year.

“It’s amazing what one year of her energy can do,” Leicht said.

Despite the turnaround, Myers can still tick off a wish list of park improvements: more flowers, trees to prevent hill erosion, a dog run, fields for the influx of new immigrants who prefer soccer over basketball and handball.

Still, on Sunday, Claremont was filled with people enjoying the park as it is. Marilyn Doyle, who lives nearby, chose to spend her 70th birthday there basking in the sunlight and “communing with the spirits.”

“It’s a haven,” she said. “It’s energy and peacefulness in the midst of all the craziness and anxiety outside.”