By Crystal Simmons
When Italy went under lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, a photo of dolphins swimming through the brilliant blue canals of Venice soon began circulating online.
Although the photo turned out to be fake, it held a sliver of truth: nature was healing. As cities around the globe shut down, air pollution decreased, family togetherness increased, and the outdoors experienced a renaissance.
In Precinct 4, parks not only stayed open, they attracted new visitors. Though trips to work and retail centers decreased by 35%, Google data showed a 13% increase in visits to Harris County parks, dog parks, and gardens from March 29 to April 17.
The trend isn’t unexpected. Experts have long promoted nature as a mental wellness tool that relieves depression and soothes anxiety. At a time when cases of both reached record highs, parks provided an escape, a place to spread out and explore nature without fear.
“We have witnessed people who had never biked the greenway trails, taken a kid fishing, ventured down a nature trail, or explored our white sand beaches along Spring Creek,” says Precinct 4 Parks Director Dennis Johnston.
He says more people are leaving their homes to fish along Spring Creek and Kickerillo-Mischer Preserve’s Marshall Lake, to explore the forested trails of Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center, and to picnic among the wildflowers at Pundt Park.
“Kayaking and canoeing are up, equestrian ridership is up, and visitors are discovering beautiful places they never knew existed at the end of a trail,” he says.
Johnston and his staff also watched people adapt to another way of life that’s both kinder to nature and beneficial for humanity. Many companies abandoned traditional office life for telework, leading to less traffic, clearer skylines, and increased family togetherness.
“All of a sudden, we didn’t have to get the kids to soccer practice, dance class, and piano lessons,” says Johnston. “The three hours we used to spend commuting in traffic became more time to spend with our families.
“Perhaps this ugly virus made us take a second look at rediscovering what is important in life and guess what? Right there under our noses, we found that local parks are important to maintaining our mental and physical well-being.”
Ready to Serve
While the parks department addressed the influx of visitors, other Precinct 4 employees served the community, too.
As Harris County came to a standstill, Commissioner R. Jack Cagle canceled all Precinct 4 recreational programs, closed community centers, and sent employees out into the community to serve.
Although most disasters in Harris County involve weather events, the COVID-19 pandemic required a different approach. Jan Sexton, the director of Precinct 4’s Encore! senior programs and community centers, leads a team of bus drivers, trip coordinators, community center staff, and event planners, all who work with adults older than 50.
Given this expertise, the team handled a large portion of the relief effort, says Sexton.
“We’re not moving trees and power lines and rescuing people from high water,” she says. “We’re dealing with a health crisis and a worldwide pandemic. Our response has to be social-service oriented. And that’s where my team excels.”
Encore! employees shifted from providing trips and recreational activities for older adults to helping feed the hungry. Staff members volunteered with the nonprofit CrowdSource Rescue to deliver food to vulnerable adults and visited the Houston Food Bank to help sort and package approximately 42,000 meals a day.
Thanks to the close partnership between Encore! and the Houston Food Bank, Mangum-Howell Center was converted into a food sorting center. After a month, staff stationed at the sorting center had processed more than 23,000 bags of food.
To identify seniors who may suffer from food shortages, health problems, or mental illness, Encore! employees made nearly 16,000 care calls through June, each call lasting 15-30 minutes. Calls resulted in multiple food delivery signups and provided seniors a reprieve from the monotony of quarantine. And sometimes it was just nice to hear a caring voice, some of the seniors reported.
Encore! Assistant Director Cyndi Hill worked with local seamstresses and nonprofits to make masks for the public and nonprofits, while others sourced donated disposable masks. By June, Precinct 4 staff members had given more than 31,500 masks to the public, local churches, partner sites, and chambers of commerce.
Landon Reed, the assistant director of the precinct’s Community Assistance Department, worked with Whitmeyer’s Distilling Co. to bring thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer to nonprofits, schools, and first responders across Precinct 4.
Dozens of other Precinct 4 employees worked together to serve more than 2,700 vehicles at an all-day food and supply pick-up event at the former Pinemont Park and Ride. The precinct’s Road & Bridge Department directed traffic during the massive event and helped load and unload all the food and equipment.
As the economy continues to recover, Precinct 4 employees are looking toward the return to normality, resuming limited programs and activities. But with no cure in sight, Cagle says Precinct 4 staff members stand ready to serve.
“I want to thank these essential staff members who worked throughout this dangerous pandemic to serve their community,” says Cagle. “They provided food for the hungry, phone calls for isolated seniors, and provided necessary supplies to our first responders. Although we don’t know how long the virus may linger, I know that we can persevere if we remain united.”