Meet a New Yorker for Parks

Okja Cho

December 11, 2012

The saws still buzzed in Alley Pond Park last week, more than a month after the storm hit.

Sandy toppled about 5,000 trees in parks citywide, and more than 200 of those were in Alley Pond, Queens' second-largest park, according to the Parks Department.

At the same time, NY4P’s Daffodil Project was in its final week, and children at NYCHA developments just blocks from storm-ravaged neighborhoods in Staten Island planted bulbs in their community centers' gardens.

As the storm recovery continues citywide, Okja Cho remains one of the City’s – and NY4P’s – most dedicated volunteer park and planting stewards.

Almost immediately after moving to Glen Oaks, Queens about six years ago, Cho became enamored with the 655-acre Alley Pond and its varied natural landscape. Cho vividly remembers the rolling hills near her hometown outside Seoul. She saw them from her neighborhood and often took trips there to enjoy her main hobby, hiking. Her love of nature remained after arriving in the United States in 1970. Much of the time since she’s lived in Queens and enjoyed its parks – especially Alley Pond.

Now, after several tree-care and pruning courses through the Parks Department and the PlaNYC MillionTrees program, she’s there at least four days a week, picking up trash, watching for illegal metal-detector activity and, most recently, cutting broken branches after the storm and checking on newly planted trees.

“Since I moved to my neighborhood, Alley Pond Park has been getting to me,” she said.

Cho credits the Parks Department with fostering her stewardship. The courses have all been extremely rewarding, she said. She also has warm words for the Department’s Alley Pond staff.

“It’s a privilege to help the City maintain the park and to be able to do my work,” she said.

As Cho’s presence in the park has grown, so has her involvement with the Daffodil Project. She loves working with children and is a mainstay in the Bulb Brigade, NY4P’s volunteer planting corps. She attended two Project events this fall and was set to host her own, in Alley Pond, with Bayside High School, but it was canceled due to the storm. So she planted the 1,200 bulbs next to the Alley Pond Park Adventure Center on her own. Now, she’s planning to install a 9/11 tribute plaque in honor of what she’ll call the Memorial Daffodil Field.

“Okja has been a committed Brigadier since the beginning of the Bulb Brigade program,” said Emily Walker, NY4P’s Daffodil Project Coordinator.  “She is not only willing to put in her time and energy to help NY4P with our bulb distributions and plantings, but she also devotes countless hours to improving the open spaces in her community.  She always has a smile on her face and a quick joke at the ready. Working with her is such a pleasure, and her commitment is a reminder of why the Daffodil Project is so meaningful. And fun!”

While the cancellation of her park planting was a disappointment, Cho doesn’t mind going it alone. She loves to watch children enjoying the park and to bird-watch along its nature trail with binoculars.

“I’m a founder and member of the Alley Pond Maintenance Club – the only member,” she said, laughing. “I just love being there. A lot of people used to ask me what I’m doing. They don’t ask me anymore.” But no doubt they quietly appreciate all she's doing for their park and neighborhood.