We are pleased to announce the winners of the 2020-2021 Parks and Recreation Champion Awards program: Lesley Handa, Greg Schuett, Marisa Paige Butler, Karen Ogden, and Mark DeGraffenreid!
Recipients of Parks and Recreation Champion Awards are people who have made a difference in local parks, preserves and community programs, throughout the County of San Diego. Their selfless efforts to bring positive change to the world around them and prompt others to become park, recreation and community ambassadors. Honorees were recognized in three categories – Environmental Education, Park Ambassadorship and Building Community – in addition to naming one overarching Parks and Recreation Champion.
Winner of the top honor of Parks and Recreation Champion is scientist, teacher, advocate and changemaker who serves on the board for the San Diego Audubon Society and the Friends of Famosa Slough: Lesley Handa. She has dedicated thousands of hours to leading habitat restoration projects and interpretive programs, in addition to hundreds of hours of careful review of development projects to ensure plans are sustainable and environmentally responsible. She established her own Ornithology lab and is an avid tracker of bird populations in San Diego; data that is vital as many of these species face an uncertain future with climate change. She created a training program for City arborists on tree trimming best management practices to avoid impacting nesting birds in both English and Spanish and in her In her “spare” time, assumes leadership positions with the Greater San Diego Science and Engineering Fair and Love-Your-Wetlands events.
Our Environmental Education Champion, Greg Schuett, was instrumental in establishing Santa Ysabel’s east and west preserves, protecting more than 2,100 acres of land for preservation purposes and to open new avenues for recreation and learning. He is the longest serving president and volunteer of Volcan Mountain Foundation and remains an active board member and change agent as growth and opportunity are welcomed into our region’s mountain district. He also provided exemplary service to local students throughout his 30 years at Cuyamaca Outdoor School. As principal of California's largest and longest-running 6th Grade Camp, tens of thousands of children have benefitted from his passion for connecting children to science and nature, and to STEAM careers.
Our Park Ambassadorship honoree, Marisa Paige Butler, launched a Facebook group – We Clean Trails San Diego – that quickly gained more than 750 followers, maximizing interest and participation in Saturday morning cleanup events, which she attends every week. She participates in outreach and beautification projects with the Friends of Rose Creek, Seal Society of San Diego and I Love a Clean San Diego – removing thousands of pounds of garbage removed from our trails, beaches, riverbeds and coastal areas. Her friendly demeaner, educational approach and get-it-done attitude – combined with the fact that she supplies gloves, buckets, grabbers and bags – have significantly boosted volunteerism among her affiliate organizations, and greatly impacted the cleanliness of some of San Diego’s most popular recreation destinations.
There were two winners in the Building Community category: Karen Ogden and Mark DeGraffenreid.
Karen Ogden, a mental health advocate for teens and founder of a non-profit organization called SOLE Effects, empowers youth to become confident, purpose-driven leaders via connections with influential mentors. She chose early retirement to start the organization, when she realized how little time teachers had to address the mounting social and emotional needs of their students. She witnessed, firsthand, the pressures and anxieties these students faced – which had detrimental effects on their ability to focus, learn, and feel happy. She commits 40 hours a week to her cause and even launched an adventure program that uses physical exertion to bolster mental and emotional strength. The program provides mentoring centered on building healthy lifestyles, leadership skills, and workforce readiness. Youth are taught flexibility, accountability, to follow through and take initiative. To date, 5,132 youth have been served and 56,190 mentoring hours have been provided! Proof, that SOLE Effects has been a very successful solution to addressing a real and critical community.
For more than two decades, Mark DeGraffenreid has been helping to build community by serving as the head of the San Diego Floor Hockey League, a volunteer league established in the 1990s at UCSD. According to this individual’s nomination: “He contributed both brains and brawn to create and maintain this flourishing league.” Seven days a week with games on Sundays, he goes out of his way to ensure participants have a welcoming and stable home base to improve their health, stay active, meet new people, strengthen social ties, and have fun. Teams are balanced with male and female players, and with players showcasing a wide range of ability so everyone has a chance to sharpen their talent. In a time when adults are struggling with insufficient physical activity, loneliness and depression, his actions have made a huge difference in the lives of hundreds of local adults.
Additionally, two individuals were also recognized for deploying innovative techniques that make recreation more accessible, equitable and inclusive, earning the respect of their peers and recognition by our judges: Steve Goble and Frank Carson.
Local industry volunteer and icon Mike McCoy was recognized for his 50 years of service with a County proclamation. Also honored was Ralph Strahm, another lifelong parks volunteer whose wife, Kiarling Strahm, accepted flowers and the dedication of a plaque on his behalf.
Nominations were accepted for 6 weeks in late summer, with initial review in September and judging, by the San Diego County Park Society, in October. Awards were announced at an intimate banquet at Heritage County Park on Tuesday, Nov. 2. Learn more about the program on the program page.