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Students, community bring new life to Pollywog Park

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RONAN — Pollywog Park behind K. William Harvey Elementary has been a staple of the community for many years. Now, thanks to some elementary school students and neighborhood efforts, it’s finally getting a facelift. 

Spearheaded by Ronan School District’s After School Club Coordinator Angele Popyk and Claudia Andrade with the MSU Lake County Extension Office, the park has gotten its first upgrade in years in the form of a barefoot walking path. 

A concept popular in Europe, the path encourages kids to take their shoes off and connect with the earth through numerous types of textures, from gravel to lava rock to sand. While Popyk credits Andrade with forming their partnership, Andrade said the idea came to be thanks to Popyk’s suggestion at a youth educators’ group in which they both participate. 

“It helped us put together other pieces,” Andrade said of the collaboration. “We though ‘Hey, there are a lot of us here who could come together and work on this.’”

Pollywog Park was named in 1978 after the elementary school held a competition to name the piece of land. Local special education teacher Holly Duffy, a first grader at the time, and her brother both entered name suggestions, and both ended up front runners for the prize. Duffy does clarify that it was really their mother who came up with the names they submitted and Pollywog was the winner.

This beloved park was once used for natural history classes and at one point in time had markers for the different displays and features it housed. However, the project faded away over the years and members of the school district have had too much on their plates to revive it themselves. So, volunteers have been stepping up to bring the park back to its former glory. 

Last year, volunteer groups took the first step in restoring the park by weeding the land and clearing out debris. For safety, some of the bridges were replaced and a high school shop class built picnic tables that reside there now. But, this year’s partnership has marked the start of a more concentrated effort to get consistent revitalization work going so teachers can once again utilize the outdoor space for their students.

Popyk and Andrade sang praise for many members of the community who helped get the ball rolling. Brenda Richey from the Flathead Reservation extension office helped provide the project with funding. Rene Dubay from the Salish and Kootenai College extension office facilitated the donation of native plants from Matt Ogden and his team in the Tribal Forestry Greenhouse Program. Aaron Frank from Mission Lawn and Landscape donated some materials for the texture pathway, the Forestry Department brought a big log for the kids to play on and Popyk’s own husband Jude volunteers his time and skills flattening and creating the path. 

Andrade has taken point on the project by facilitating and coordinating all these groups, while Popyk has rounded up the troops of 191 students in the after school program to start working in and learning about the natural area. 

Elementary schoolers started their part of the project last Tuesday by gathering up sticks in the park to make a debris pile. “We gave them ten minutes, and man, you’ve never seen kids work so fast,” Popyk laughed. What started with kids picking up handfuls of sticks transformed into multiple kids deciding to team up to move a log all on their own. They then moved on to digging holes, planting and watering the native plants themselves. Several kids worked together to carry water buckets for not only their own part of the project but offered watering to others as well. 

“It was so fun to see them have fun and be engaged and the teamwork was huge,” Andrade said. “It’s so fun to watch the kids make these smaller connections from the work we did out there. There were educational pieces they were still able to pick up through this very hands-on, learning-by-doing project.” 

“They were so proud of themselves,” Popyk agreed. “We’re all really enjoying it. It was so fun watching the joy in the kids.”

The students will keep contributing to Pollywog going forward by making bug hotels, pinecone bird feeders and various other small projects that can be incorporated throughout the year.

With the momentum gained from this project, Popyk and Andrade are also planning some summer camps, such as a Naturalist Camp, because they hope to continue partnering to accomplish the park space work. Andrade herself won’t be able to be as involved this summer, as she’s currently expecting her first child, but her hope is that they’ll continue to have more community garden-based projects in the future. The next goal is to make a walk-under arch for kids, decorated with bottle cap chandeliers the kids make themselves. Providing signage for the native plants with Salish, Kootenai and common names is another goal, as well as a kiosk that teaches kids about different local animals. 

“People want to be involved, they want to help and support the youth and this is just such a great space for them to go in and do that and see the work they’ve put in and how it’s impacting the youth,” Andrade said.

“I’ve been stopped all week by people talking about when they were kids and being in that park,” Popyk commented. “There’s potential for so much more.”

If any community members are interested in donating their time, skills, or resources to the project, they can call the extension office at 406-676-3271 and ask for Claudia. 

While natural or upcycled material contribution will depend on what projects are currently in the works, the team is always open to ideas for the future and always have projects they could use a helping hand with. 

“Being able to make those connections with the community, finding someone with different skillsets … we’re so thankful for it,” Andrade said. “Everyone has something to offer.”  

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