In their retirement years, Patrick and Mardelle Kopnicky of Natrona Heights looked for an opportunity to spend more time together sharing their love for nature. They settled on nearby Harrison Hills Park. At just over 500 acres, it is the smallest of the nine Allegheny County Parks, yet it is abundant in its natural diversity. Over the years, a team of engaged and expert volunteers has documented over 187 species of birds and 120 different wildflowers. Harrison Hills is also home to a spectacular view from cliffs overlooking the Allegheny River.
After logging more than 20,000 volunteer hours, the Kopnickys are ready to "downsize" like most of their friends and relatives. Rather than moving from their personal homestead of 35 years located on 25 acres, they have chosen to downsize their volunteer efforts at the park. "It will be 10 years this year that we signed up to become the first Friends of Harrison Hills Park, and we have devoted thousands of hours of volunteer work at the park with a very proud list of accomplishments," says Mardelle.
Allegheny County Council created the "Council of Friends" in October 2002 to be comprised of an advisory council from each Allegheny County Park. Patrick and Mardelle organized the first Council of Friends for Harrison Hills Park in 2005 at the Natrona Heights Library. They brainstormed a wish list of 90 items, and since that time, they have been crossing them off, one by one. Accomplishments include 14 miles of mapped trails with 18 trail side benches, the completion of over 35 scout projects and most recently, an effort to encourage bluebird nesting with the addition of 36 boxes and a volunteer group to care for them. Their crowning achievement is the Harrison Hills Environmental Learning Center which opened in 2008. "I still remember Patrick standing outside this building and saying we could make this into a nature center," recalled Mardelle. They added the outdoor classroom after receiving a $10,000 grant from Arbor Day Foundation in 2009.
The Kopnickys are quick to point out that Harrison Hills benefits from a dedicated park staff and a skilled community of volunteers. And they consider all volunteers "Friends of Harrison Hills," whether or not they have official appointments. "Volunteers can and do make a big difference. People who love, appreciate and work for enjoyment of nature, we have found to be very special, happy individuals and a pleasure to work with over past 10 years," they said. Allegheny County Parks Director Andy Baechle commented on the contributions of Patrick and Mardelle saying, "Their leadership of volunteer efforts has transformed Harrison Hills Park."
What do they hope the future holds for Harrison Hills? The Kopnickys want to see younger people drawn to the park, and they believe the new Allegheny County Park Rangers will help. They emphasize that the reward for their years of effort is the pleasure of seeing others reap the joys of nature that are free and available if you know where and how to look for them. As more and more visitors experience and learn about nature at Harrison Hills, they will have the Kopnickys and many supportive volunteers to thank.