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Garden City Bird Sanctuary the 'essence of volunteerism'

Volunteers from Liberty Mutual Insurance and Garden City

Volunteers from Liberty Mutual Insurance and Garden City High School at the Garden City Bird Sanctuary (June 21, 2013). Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger

On the first day of summer, three employees of Liberty Mutual Insurance left behind the computers and phones in their Mineola office, and headed out to wield hedge clippers and rakes at the Garden City Bird Sanctuary.

Andrew Altaro, Francesca Parella and Raymond Irizarry were participating in a companywide effort to stress volunteerism. They and 26 other Liberty Mutual employees from around Long Island had chosen to go to the sanctuary for a day of community service. The three from Mineola admitted, however, that while they had been looking forward to the prospect of helping out somewhere not far from their workplace, they had no idea what a bird sanctuary was.

"I was imagining some kind of enclosure with injured birds," Irizarry said. "I guess like a sort of bird hospital."

When they arrived at the sanctuary, they were shocked to find something much different:

A 9-acre wildlife preserve, just a few blocks north of busy Stewart Avenue and home to more than 250 species of native plants, many of them rarely found elsewhere on Long Island;

One of the last surviving pieces of the grassy Hempstead Plains that once covered much of western Long Island;

A half-mile walking trail, and;

More than 100 individual species of migratory birds.

"You feel like you're out in the woods," Irizarry said. "It's massive!"

It is also misleading. Even the sanctuary's founder, Rob Alvey, calls it a "miserable name," but one necessary back in 1995, when he and a group of local Boy Scouts began cleaning out an overgrown, garbage-strewn Nassau County sump.

"This was before we had set up our own nonprofit," Alvey recalled. "The original permit [to use the land] was with the Audubon Society, so it had to be called a bird sanctuary and it is in Garden City."

But today the sanctuary is a separate nonprofit charitable organization -- funded with donations, grants and memberships -- and much more than a giant birdhouse.

"It's now a functioning ecosystem, where it wasn't before," said Jennifer Wilson-Pines, Port Washington-based president of the North Shore Audubon Society. Before Alvey came along, she added, "it was basically a tangled mess of invasive plants."

Besides being a model for grassroots environmental action, the sanctuary is to some a prime example of what volunteers can do.

"To me, it's the essence of volunteerism," said Diana O'Neill, executive director of the Long Island Volunteer Center, based in Hempstead, and a Garden City resident who has herself volunteered at the sanctuary. "It's identifying a community need and rallying the necessary resources to support a solution. That's what happened here."

As is often the case, it started with the efforts of one person: In this case Alvey, 61, who often works at the sanctuary clad in a shirt identifying himself as "Birdbrain."

Alvey, a geologist by training, has lived in Garden City most of his life. In the early 1990s, when he received a job offer in Columbus, Ohio, he was ready for a move. His wife, Sue, was not, and she told him she wasn't going.

Instead, his wife -- a Garden City native and Rob's high school sweetheart -- encouraged him to start getting more involved in the community. "I said, 'You'll feel better about Garden City if you volunteer and find something to do.' "

Somewhat reluctantly, Alvey complied and soon after heard that the village was forming an environmental advisory board. When he attended a planning meeting where one of the first orders of business was to conduct an inventory of open spaces in the village, Alvey raised his hand.

"I thought, 'That's easy enough for me to do riding around on my bike,' " he recalled.

So with his oldest daughter Alexis, then 9, accompanying him, Alvey explored the remaining parcels in Garden City. One day in 1993, as part of his audit, he and Alexis found themselves peeking over the fence of Nassau County Storm-Water Basin #232.

As its name suggests, a storm-water basin is open land where rain can run off, instead of pooling on the streets or in homeowners' basements. But along with the rain came a river of suburban garbage, picked up from the streets and carried along. Most neighborhoods on Long Island have sumps similar to this -- fenced off and grown over with weeds and refuse.

Few, however, have someone like Alvey.

Intrigued by the possibility of creating a natural habitat on the land, Alvey organized an informal meeting of like-minded neighbors and organizations. In April 1995, he and some members of local Boy Scout Troop 56 ventured into the basin property to pick up litter.

Still, Alvey sensed the potential here was greater than the "sump" of its parts. While exploring the southern edge of the property, he discovered an open meadow of wild grass, 21/2 feet tall and surrounded by weeds. After consulting with an expert from the Nassau County parks department, he realized he had uncovered one of the few remaining traces of the 60,000- acre Great Hempstead Plains, a defining feature of Long Island geography in the 18th and 19th centuries.

"When I was told I had found a piece of Colonial Long Island," Alvey said, "it was a 'eureka' moment."

What Alvey also discovered was the power of volunteer labor. Although he has managed to get various grants over the years to advance his efforts, the real engine of change here has been people rolling up their sleeves and getting dirty. Consider this item from the first edition of the "Sump-Thing's Happening" newsletter that Alvey began publishing in 1995:

"40 volunteers showed up on June 3. They dug holes for the flower bulbs, planted annuals donated for a local Brownie troop and installed the first bluebird and wren houses."

Alvey chuckles at the memory. "It sounds a lot like what we're still doing."

These days, the sanctuary -- which, to better reflect its scope of activities, has added the name Tanners Pond Environmental Center -- attracts a steady stream of volunteers from local schools, community groups, colleges and corporations. The preserve is open on weekends and is free to the public, and memberships are $20 for individuals, $35 for families.

Although he has been helped by the efforts of an estimated 10,000 volunteers since the sanctuary's inception, Alvey decided in 2008 that it was finally time to a get a second-in-command. He invited Elizabeth Bailey, a Garden City native who had recently returned home after years of living in the South, to help out.

Bailey, a chemist by training, retired from the natural resources division of the famed Tennessee Valley Authority, the huge utility that provides power for six states. The basin's transformation made a big impression on her.

"I remember when it was a sump," she said with a chuckle. Now, "it's a place where you can think you're out in the country and forget you're in suburbia."

As vice president of the sanctuary, Bailey, 63, said she devotes about eight volunteer hours a week at the preserve. She organizes fundraising events, coordinates the nature camp and "is there to welcome the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts that come during the week" when Alvey is at his paid job, she said.

On Saturday, Alvey will host a "Twilight Tours and Refreshments" open house to introduce people to the sanctuary. From 5 to 8 p.m., visitors can take a short guided tour and see what's new at the preserve.

"We're always looking for ways to introduce it to more people," Alvey said. In the past year, a 5k trail run, Halloween walk and a nature camp have been added to the list of activities unfolding in what Sue Alvey calls "Rob's big backyard."

By his own estimate, Alvey spends about 35 to 40 hours a week there, a true second job to the one he has with the Environmental Protection Agency in Manhattan. At the EPA, Alvey's job is investigating contamination at Superfund sites. To help him in his volunteer work with the sanctuary, Alvey has taken classes in ornithology and botany.

"I'm not a naturalist," he said. "I had to learn."

His dedication and enthusiasm, O'Neill, of the volunteer center, said, is a key to the sanctuary's success.

"He's so inviting," she said. "It's hard, dirty work, but he makes you want to come back."

Which some of the Liberty Mutual insurance volunteers said they might consider, now that they understand the full scope of the sanctuary. Altaro, Parella and Irizarry worked the whole morning, clearing out mugwort weeds and filling dozens of trash bags by lunchtime.

"It's a beautiful place," Parella said, "although I wish it was air-conditioned."

As Altaro surveyed the newly cleared stretch of woods he and his co-workers had been working in, he assessed the day's work.

"We're having a good time," he said. "It doesn't look like we did a lot, but we did."

The Kulins family's connection to the Garden City Bird Sanctuary began when daughter Sara took on a research project at Mepham High School involving the sanctuary's wet meadows. When she went on to college at Adelphi University in Garden City, where she is a junior, she wanted to continue her involvement at the place she had come to love, and on national Make A Difference Day in October 2010, she encouraged her friends and family to join her. "I had a bunch of people come out and do weeding," Kulins said.

Her father, Charlie, mom, Kathy, and brothers Marc and John also pitched in. Like so many others visiting for the first time, they had no idea what the sanctuary was all about.

"When they tell you it's a 'dual purpose storm basin,' you say, 'okayyyy,' " said Charlie Kulins, 49. "But once you walk in there, you're amazed at what they've done."

The Kulinses, who live in North Bellmore, are now among the doers at the sanctuary. Marc, 16, is completing his Eagle Scout project there, which involves repairs of damaged fencing along the walking trail. He is also helping with a tree identification program at the sanctuary, the beneficiary of more than 20 Eagle Scout projects since the preserve was established in 1995.

Meanwhile, his sister is a student member of the sanctuary's volunteer board, and, as a runner, was very involved in helping sanctuary founder Rob Alvey plan the first 5k trail run there in April.

As the Scoutmaster for his son's troop, 577 in North Bellmore, Charlie Kulins brings his Scouts periodically to help with cleanup and other projects at the sanctuary. Like many others, he said he is impressed by the volunteer energy there, much of it radiating from Alvey.

"I'm an avid garden and outdoors person myself," Charlie Kulins said. "But I can't fathom how Mr. Alvey comes up with the time for this."

Sign me up

"If you can hold a hoe or a rake, I think you can help," said Rob Alvey, founder of the Garden City Bird Sanctuary-Tanners Pond Environmental Center. The work is usually done in teams and on weekends. The Sanctuary is open to the public on weekends between March and November, from noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment. There is no charge to visit.

Contact: To volunteer, go to gcbirdsanctuary.org/volunteering. For more information, call 516-326-1720 or email gcbirdsanctuary@gmail.com

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For more volunteer information and opportunities, contact the LONG ISLAND VOLUNTEER CENTER at 516-564-5482; disastervolunteer@longislandvolunteercenter.org; info@longislandvolunteercenter.org

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