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Saving one park at a time

Pio Pico Park is slated for closure unless $80,000 can be raised to keep it open one more year.

Carolyn Schoff at her beloved Pio Pico Park.

Adriene Hill: It's shaping up to be a beautiful weekend here in California. Sun. High 70s. My goal is to get out and go for a hike. And there are some trails I need to get to pretty soon, before they're closed.

California is planning to shut down dozens of state parks, in an effort to save money. It's an extreme plan to help solve a budget shortage that a whole lot of states are facing. One of the California parks on the chopping block is Pio Pico State Historic Park.

It's small, only about four-and-a-half acres with an old adobe home surrounded by green grass dotted with the smallest orange trees I've ever seen.

Carolyn Schoff: OK, so this is the front room of the adobe. And we can continue on and walk through some of the other rooms here.

Volunteer Carolyn Schoff gives me a tour.

Schoff: This is Pio Pico's historic adobe mansion that he lived in from the 1850s to the 1890s here in Whittier, Calif.

California is planning to close a quarter of its state parks, hoping to save millions of dollars. If the closures do happen, it'll mean fewer places for Californians and visitors to tromp around the woods and watch the waves and maybe learn a little history.

Take this park, the home of California's last Mexican governor, Pio Pico.

Schoff: I call him the "quintessential Californian," because he represents everything we represent. He started from humble means and became very wealthy. The real California dream. He also lost everything, and I think this is a great time to be looking at that and see why people and states lose everything, why we have economic problems and maybe use it as a cautionary exercise on what we need to do differently. So it's a great history lesson that we should take and glean what we can from and not repeat it.

Carolyn is way more than a regular volunteer; she's basically taken it on as her mission to save this park, to keep it open at least one more year to give the community time to figure out what to do.

Schoff: The only way that we can keep these parks open right now is through local efforts and raising funds for the next year to keep it open, which is $80,000.

Hill: What are you doing? And what is your organization doing to raise that $80,000?

Schoff: Well, the Friends of Pio Pico started a campaign last month. We have a fundraising drive called "Pesos for Pio Pico," and we want to get the community involved. We understand that people don't have money right now, but if they can bring their recycling in, make whatever donations they can.

Hill: So one can at a time.

Schoff: One can at a time. Yes, one peso at a time. And private donations. We have a birthday party for Pio Pico. He's gonna be 211 on May 5.

Hill: Happy Birthday.

Schoff: Yeah, happy birthday Pio Pico! And then in June, June is either our last hurrah or great celebration. So it's called "Fiesta de Pio Pico" on June 16. Celebration or wake. And it's either gonna be a celebration that we were able to raise $80,000 and keep it open for another year. Or a wake to mourn such a loss of a great historic site in Southern California.

When I ask how close they are to that $80,000 goal, she laughs -- in a not-close-enough kind of way. But she says she can't even imagine the gates being locked for good.

Schoff: I haven't even gone there in my head. I am just pushing for it to save this park and to do whatever it takes. We've jokingly said we're gonna go camp out on the front lawn and do Occupy Pio Pico if the gates close. But I hope it doesn't come to that. I hope we can save this park. It's just an amazing treasure and an amazing asset to this community.

Hill: And do you have fantasies of that phone call or that lottery ticket?

Schoff: I do, I actually got an award the other day and it was really funny. Someone called me up and they said, "I have great news for you."

Hill: And your heart was just...

Schoff: And I held my breath and I said, "Let it be $80,000." And she said, "We're gonna award you the Clara Barton Spirit Award from the American Red Cross for all your efforts to save the park." And I almost said, "Does that come with an $80,000 check?" But I resisted.

Hill: Congratulations.

Schoff: You know, I'm very proud to get the award, but until we save the park, it's kind of bittersweet.

I wander around a bit after Carolyn and I finish up, looking at the house, the long cracks that run along some of its walls, imagining Pio Pico's parties -- which Carolyn tells were pretty wild. And on my way out I run into another volunteer. Richard Arguijo dressed in costume. A crisp white shirt, black pants that trumpet out below the knee, a blue tie around his neck and a red sash around his waist.

Richard Arguijo: This is the way they dressed in those days. Everybody had their own clothing and everybody had their own colors and so forth. Back in those days, there were so many ranches that they distinguished the owner of the ranch by the color of the sash.

Richard's been volunteering here as long as Carolyn has.

Arguijo: This is a proud community in the Latino area. The people themselves, the history, the kids that come by wouldn't know what this was. They would probably drive by, maybe condos would be here. I don't know; it depends on what they plan to do. But then there would be kids who do field trip who would not have this place as a field trip. There's a lot of culture here, a lot of history that'll be lost.

Hill: What would it mean to you if this place closed?

Arguijo: Well, Sundays I wouldn't have any place to go, because I try to make it a point to come here Sundays for at least two hours. And I just would miss seeing the kids; that's another thing. When they come by, they're all excited, they've got lots of questions. One thing, they always wanna have some fruit. They see the oranges that he used to use and so forth and they ask during through the course of the tour, "Can I get an orange?"

Hill: And do they ever get an orange?

Arguijo: When they're in full bloom, we usually -- at the end of the tour -- say, "OK kids, go for it. Everybody come back with an orange." And boy, they race out there to get their oranges.

About the author

Adriene Hill is the senior multimedia reporter for LearningCurve.

Carolyn Schoff at her beloved Pio Pico Park.

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