After discovering many stewards did not have completed background checks, Bellingham Parks and Recreation Director Nicole Oliver shut down Bellingham’s Park Stewardship program on Oct. 18, 2023.
Oliver said a new stewardship supervisor is currently being trained as her team works with the legal department to make sure all stewards have done the required training and completed their background checks.
The issue began in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, Oliver said. People weren’t meeting for work parties but still wanted to work for the city’s various parks, which led to an expansion of unsupervised work in the park stewardship program.
Park stewards work with the city to determine a specific trail, park land or other open space they can adopt. After being trained on safety with park officials, stewards get to choose what work they spend their time doing.
“In our zeal to embrace all of this wonderful volunteer energy, it ended up undermining our risk,” Oliver said.
There are lists of people without updated letters of agreement for their stewardship, Oliver said, which she attributed to a lack of adequate administrative support and an unrealistic expectation for the volunteer outreach coordinators to be able to handle that much paperwork.
“To make sure they have the training and the background check, it's that follow-through that's so time-consuming,” she said.
While the stewardship program had to stop accepting applications, the city’s work parties are organized and managed separately. Oliver said these work parties are still open for volunteers, need all the help they can get, are vetted carefully and are overseen by staff.
Early next year, the park stewardship program will open again with a new supervisor and increased administrative support for verifying background checks. Rather than relying exclusively on physical paperwork or email submissions, Oliver said they are planning to update their website with new online portals that will simplify paperwork for the stewards and the city staff.
“I'm hoping by January or February, we can open it up again,” Oliver said.
Hayden Knoedler (he/him) is a city news reporter for The Front this quarter. He is a third-year student at Western working to complete a minor in News/Editorial journalism to accommodate his Creative Writing major. In his free time, he enjoys taking photos and playing video games. You can reach him at email@example.com