Tibby Larson at a public works event. (Courtesy/City of Salem)

When Tibby Larson looks back at 20 years spent as Salem’s volunteer coordinator, Bush’s Pasture Park comes to mind.

She said volunteers were able to turn a piece of overgrown land into a destination visit.

There was a hillside with a few rhododendrons, but Wally Reed had a dream to plant the entire hillside with the plant.

College and high school students, the Willamette Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society, Oregon Soap Box Derby Association and other volunteers worked together to remove blackberry vines and ivy. Then they planted the Rhododendron Hillside Garden.

“It’s existed for seven or eight years now and came strictly though the love and hard work of volunteers,” she said.

Now after working the job for decades, Larson is retiring. She worked with regular volunteers who patrolled Minto Brown Island Park or maintained Pioneer Cemetery and people who had court-ordered community service, who she called “voluntolds.”

But Larson said there were many more “episodic” volunteers — or people who would come to an event one to three times a year.

She said people from different clubs or organizations would contact her and say, “Our staff would like to do volunteer event, what do you have?”

Larson would get together with park staff to find a project and then equip the group with the tools they needed. She said staff would leave to do other work and come back at the end to assess the project and make sure everyone had fun.

During her time as coordinator, she said she’s met people in the community she never would have otherwise, those who care deeply about parks and wildlife.

“It’s a really fun job,” she said.

Take, for example, her time as the owl correspondent.

For more than a year, Larson fielded phone calls and emails from Salem residents who had spotted the infamous attack owl, a barred owl that had swooped down and clawed a jogger in Bush’s Pasture Park in 2015. There were several other attacks later that year.

The Salem Parks Foundation capitalized on the national attention the city had gotten and used a graphic from the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC — featuring a park sign showing an owl swooping down and attacking someone — to fundraise.

Larson said she contacted Maddow for permission to use the sign. The parks foundation used the money raised to improve playgrounds at Bush’s Pasture Park.

A few months later, someone nominated Maddow to get award from the mayor and city council. Maddow sent out the graphic artist, Allegra Flores, who created the sign and they showed her the signs that had been posted in the park. The incident even spawned a beer at Gilgamesh Brewery, “Hoot Attack.”

“It was a real hoot,” Larson said.

Larson initially started out as an elementary school teacher but said she didn’t find it satisfying. After a decade working at the YMCA in childhood and camp programs, she discovered she loved working with people who had the good of the community in mind.

 “I found out that I loved working with volunteers, they were so pure at heart with what they wanted to do,” she said.

She said she knows a lot of people are upset with government. But she said she’s proud of the city of Salem and the way it’s reached out to the community, working with them to improve the city’s parks.

“Volunteering is a really cool way for the government to bridge to the community,” she said.

In her retirement she’s hoping to spend time with grandkids, create art, take yoga classes and travel in a camper she and her husband recently bought.

They live on a hobby farm in Aumsville and Larson plans to do more gardening and farming.

Amanda Sitter is the new volunteer coordinator. She can be reached at [email protected] or 503-589-2197.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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