A handful of volunteers gathered in a small pocket park on the corner of 8th and Grant to pull weeds in the native plant garden for the United Way Day of Action on Saturday. Others across Missoula contributed their Saturday to volunteering around town however they best could while maintaining social distancing.
“Just because we can’t all gather in one space doesn’t mean that we can’t volunteer together and make Missoula a better place to live for everyone,” development manager at United Way of Missoula County Rosie Goldich said.
Goldich said United Way hosts two days of action each year during the summer and autumn solstices. Usually there are around 150 volunteers who gather on days of action and spread out around town to work on volunteer projects, but this year it was organized virtually to limit large gatherings.
People were encouraged to choose from a list of “do-it-yourself” projects and then register them on the United Way website so they could see the different ways people took action. Some project ideas on the list included sewing face masks for at-risk populations, donating clothes to YWCA’s Secret Seconds, picking up trash on hiking trails or creating their own project.
Goldich hopes to hold a larger day of action in the fall where people can gather together and support nonprofit partners that have been hit hard by COVID-19.
United Way's board President Melissa Matassa-Stone brought her 8-year-old daughter Ruby with her to the 8th Street Pocket Park. Matassa-Stone was determined to clear as many weeds as possible while showing her daughter what service and action is.
Ruby, adorned in a United Way T-shirt and a pink flower crown, helped weed a little bit, but mostly she enjoyed being outside, doing handstands and finding bugs in the garden. She found a few lady bugs, her favorite.
Matassa-Stone organized the weeding of the 8th Street park because she knew more people were spending time outdoors in the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns, and she wanted to help maintain the natural beauty of Missoula. She asked her friend Marilyn Marler to help choose a spot for their volunteer project.
“Marilyn’s done a lot for Missoula, just educating on the natural heritage part of what we see in western Montana. So I was sure she would have a good idea of somewhere that needed a little bit of love. And I was right,” Matassa-Stone said.
Marler and her husband, David Schmetterling, have been caretakers for the pocket park since it was created in July 2010. They host weeding events monthly and put updates on the park’s Facebook page.
Marler and Schmetterling have lived near 8th Street since 1999 and felt the neighborhood needed more of Missoula’s natural beauty.
The area didn’t have parks, trailhead access or the river nearby, but it did have a small pocket of land owned by the city and overgrown by knapweed. They saw the potential, and with permission from the city, a lot of volunteer work, donations, and a few grants, they were able to turn the small patch of land into a thriving natural garden.
They put in a meandering sidewalk, removed the weeds, brought in topsoil, then planted the garden with all Missoula native plants. They added signage, a stone bench and nesting boxes for native species.
“Even though this is just a little space, it can provide habitat for a variety of wildlife, from bees to bats to birds,” Schmetterling said.
At one point the garden attracted a beaver that chewed down an aspen and tried to dam up a ditch behind the park.
“That was a pretty exciting time in the neighborhood,” Schmetterling said. “People really got a kick out of that and tried to spot the beaver.”
Marler, a botanist who works at the University of Montana, loves watching the wildflowers bloom year-round. She loves the floral scent of the woods roses in bloom right now.