With A Little Help From Our Friends

A framed certificate hangs in the lobby at Markham Park & Target Range in Sunrise, Fla., attesting to a current Guinness World Record set at the park on December 4, 2011. That’s when American biker Zachary Hutelin performed the longest manual (or wheelie) on a bicycle, 209.2 meters (686 feet, 3 inches), more than double the previous record.

One scorching South Florida summer day, however, Park Manager V. Trevor Fell had other things on his mind as he strode past the certificate into his office a few feet away. He wanted to talk about one of the park’s latest, most ambitious projects, also bicycle related—4 miles of adaptive mountain-bike trails, which expand the existing 10 miles of trails and offer an alternative for bicyclists with disabilities. The park officially opened the adaptive trails in January 2015, and since then the new trails have proved popular not only with bikers who have disabilities, but also with first-time mountain bikers.

Fell is quick to point out that the park’s entire trail system, which dates to the early 1990s, is largely the work of a small group of volunteers, who still maintain the trails on an ongoing basis. “About 95 percent of the work on those trails is volunteer-driven,” says Fell. The park typically provides necessary supplies, while volunteers contribute the labor.

When one of those volunteers was injured a couple of years ago in a job-related accident that led to the loss of both of his legs, his fellow mountain bikers came up with the adaptive trails as a way to keep him riding. The trails are twice the width of the existing trails, enabling users of hand-powered recumbent bicycles to ride alongside the intermediate, expert, and pro riders using the narrower trails.

Markham Makes Its Mark

Trail volunteers contributed the majority of hours reported for 2014 by Markham, which in February was named Volunteer Park of the Year by the Broward County Parks and Recreation Division at its annual employee meeting. As tracked by the agency’s in-house volunteer coordinator, the park logged approximately 7,250 volunteer hours last year.

For most of its 42-year history, Markham had no mountain-bike trails and little demand for volunteers. When the park opened in May 1973, it was already by far the largest park in the Broward County system, but it was also the most remote and the least developed, situated in far western Broward, bordering the Everglades Conservation Area that occupies roughly two-thirds of the county. Archaeologists have confirmed that two prehistoric Indian camps once sat on land now included in the park. Less than 10 years before the park was developed, the site was mostly pasture.

Today, Markham, at 669 acres, is the second-largest park in the system, and while it’s still perched on the edge of the Everglades, westward expansion has brought development to its gates: The sprawling Bonaventure Resort & Spa country club lies immediately to the south, and Sawgrass Mills (seventh-largest mall in the U.S.) is to the east. Broward’s population has soared from approximately 600,000 in the 1970s to 1.8 million in 2013, making it the nation’s 18th most populous county. The park’s popularity has kept pace. In 2014, out of a total of more than 10-million visitors to the parks, Markham welcomed around 1.25 million, making it the second-busiest county park.

From the start, Markham has enticed visitors to make the cross-county trek by emphasizing attractions not found at other parks. In almost every instance, these attractions are heavily dependent on volunteer contributions. “I tell you,” says Fell, “if you get the right volunteers, they really pay dividends.”

Divvying Up Duties

Markham’s Fox Observatory—one of half a dozen observatories in all of South Florida—was built in 1976, and Fell estimates that about 200 volunteers have kept it operational since then. Currently, about 30 volunteers from the nonprofit South Florida Amateur Astronomers Association (SFAAA) run the facility under a 10-year agreement. The park retains ownership of the observatory, which opens Saturdays from dusk to midnight, but the programming and maintenance are handled by the SFAAA. 

The setup is different at Markham’s nearby campground, one of five in the county system and, at 88 sites, the largest. The park was slow to jump on the bandwagon when the parks division introduced the idea of “campground hosts” several years ago; now, the on-site Markham host, in her fourth camping season, is an integral part of the park’s team. “She has assisted staff doing everything from cleaning restrooms to checking in campers,” says Fell. “She has also coordinated movie nights and coffee socials, which creates a sense of community among campers.”

The volunteer model has worked well across the board at Markham, from attractions dating to the park’s early years to recent projects. Last year, seven volunteers helped staff the decades-old airfield, which consists of more than 50 acres of ground space used for launching and landing remote-control model aircraft. More recently, volunteers worked with the Broward Disc Golf Association to build an 18-hole disc golf course, which opened in late 2013 and is the newest of the parks division’s four courses. As with the adaptive trails, the park paid for supplies and volunteers did the work.

In between are other facilities that, in one way or another, benefit from volunteers: the outdoor public target range (one of the only facilities of its kind in the region), which opened in 1984 and recently added archery to a menu that includes a rifle/pistol range, skeet and trap fields, and a sporting clays course; the Barkham at Markham Dog Park, which opened in 2005 and remains the parks division’s only canine attraction; and a remote-control crawler course for miniature vehicles, which was developed by volunteers this past year. Volunteers also routinely supplement park staff for large-scale annual events like the Toys in the Sun Run and the Jamaican Jerk Festival.

Branching Out

The groundbreaking adaptive mountain-bike trails aren’t the latest volunteer-driven effort. Working with HandsOn Broward—a nonprofit organization that connects volunteers with various projects—the park has developed a butterfly garden, which 20 or so volunteers maintain monthly.

“It became a perfect match,” says Jennifer Udan, director of agency relations at HandsOn, whose involvement with the garden evolved from a previous arrangement with Markham to provide volunteers for a plant nursery that is now closed. Udan says that since adding the project to its calendar in September 2014, HandsOn has provided 148 volunteers to work on the butterfly garden.

Markham is just the latest beneficiary of the group, which has organized one-time volunteer workdays at four other county parks in the past two years. In recognition of HandsOn Broward’s continuing contributions, the parks division bestowed a Community Partnership award on the agency at the same annual employee meeting that saw Markham named Volunteer Park of the Year award.

“With parks in general, staffing is always an issue,” says Udan. “You want to build this beautiful butterfly garden, but you don’t have the staff to do it.” Volunteers help realize the vision. “You get to do something you wouldn’t be able to do alone.”

Manager Fell agrees, speaking with the enthusiasm of someone whose experience with volunteers confirms their value: “I’ve come to realize that good volunteers are irreplaceable. Without their efforts and passion, and willingness to work in an extremely hot environment, we would not have half of what Markham offers to the public today.”

Michael Mills is the Special Projects Coordinator III for the Broward County Parks and Recreation Division (Fla.). Reach him at MMills@Broward.org.