The following is an article originally published in the spring edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly magazine.
Former Cal volleyball player Toody Maher never set out to help resurrect an underprivileged community. She was just looking for a place for children to play.
But because of her steadfast belief that kids should have the opportunity for healthy outdoor activity, Maher ended up breathing life into an entire community, infusing it with hope and a brand new way of thinking.
Maher, a three-time all-conference player during the late ’70s and early ’80s at Cal, spent part of her childhood in Toronto and the rest in Santa Monica. In both places, she and her family filled countless hours at parks and recreational facilities.
As years have gone by, Maher noticed that neighborhood parks just aren’t what they should be, and set out to do something about it.
In January, 2007, the current Richmond resident decided to visit all 56 parks in her city. She was particularly drawn to Richmond’s playlots, smaller parks in the middle of a community that are designed for younger children. She immediately started attending city meetings and learning different ways to earn money and resources to rebuild the city’s parks.
Maher started out trying to transform Elm Playlot, a half-acre park in Richmond’s impoverished Iron Triangle neighborhood. She was able to get the city’s redevelopment agency to pledge $400,000 to the cause, and the park is currently undergoing renovation.
“When I started this journey, I set sail on my ship and the wind blew my ship to the Elm Playlot,” Maher said. “I never set out to work in a poor neighborhood. But that’s where I ended up. It’s a devastated, tough inner city neighborhood. I’m an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs solve problems. I wanted to figure out how to get this park built and how to finance it.”
Maher, who met the inventor of the Swatch watch while playing volleyball in Switzerland and ultimately earned the right to distribute the watches in 11 Western United States, was not only able to get the Elm Playlot renovated, but she helped introduce a new business model to the city. Instead of hiring outside experts and consultants to oversee the renovation of the park, she worked with Richmond City Manager Bill Lindsay, who earned his MBA at Cal, to allow members of the community to get involved with the planning and construction of the playlot. That way, the park that will serve the neighborhood will end up being just what the neighborhood wants.
“Rather than spending the money and hiring consultants and professional experts outside the city, it gets drilled back into the neighborhood,” Maher said. “The people in the neighborhood get to recreate the building.”
Maher’s efforts have now moved beyond Elm Playlot. Her non-profit organization, Pogo Park, recently partnered with KaBoom! to install a new sandbox at Belding-Garcia Park. And there are two other parks in Richmond now also under construction. Pogo Park is using a $150,000 grant from The Trust For Public Land to convert a two-block stretch of the Richmond Greenway into Harbour-8 Park, and the California State Parks Office of Grants and Local Services awarded Richmond a $5 million grant to develop Unity Park, also along the Greenway.
“Parks can totally transform the health of a community,” Maher said. “Parks can be like the watering hole of a community. They are so powerful. There are thousands of parks around the country just lying there unused and dormant. All we have to do is turn the lights on and make them functional. All great cities have great parks.”