After over a year of pandemic lockdowns and social distancing, I have vowed to never take our city’s parks and community spaces for granted. And a recent tour of Wallingford’s Good Shepherd Center and Meridian Playground further cemented this rejection of complacency. Throughout the tour our group was reminded that the existence of these parks, and specifically this beautiful building and accompanying playground, did not happen easily or overnight. Through the stained-glass windows of the chapel and among the still-prosperous fruit orchards Wallingford residents saw an opportunity for community that we are still benefiting from almost 50 years later.
I have worked at Snow Leopard Trust, in the Good Shepherd Center, for almost four years now, and frequently comment that I knew I was going to work here from the moment I laid eyes on the building – and that was before I had even seen the rest of the grounds! Now I’m not sure you could force me out, the pandemic couldn’t. I’ve always felt thankful to have a park so full of life (from flowers, to fruit trees to playing children) to take breaks in – but after our tour organized by the Visions of Wallingford community filmmaking project, I have an even deeper appreciation for my second home in Seattle.
Our tour began in Meridian Playground’s north orchard, where Tara, the groundskeeper for the building and surrounding areas, shared a history of the park through the eyes of the apple trees. Prior to being purchased by the city in the mid 1970s, the building and grounds were owned and operated by the Order of the Good Shepherd. Anyone who’s been in the building has seen the signs and heard the rumors – “wayward” girls, sent here to never be seen or heard from again. But not all rumors are true, and by all accounts the school was well-run and gave thousands of young women a safe place to learn and grow. During one of my garden strolls, I have even had the fortune to meet a woman who graduated from the school prior to its dissolution. She was visiting from out of town with her daughter and eager to reminisce about her girlhood spent among the orchards and in the laundry (how the girls raised funds). She even recounted the songs taught to her by the nuns so many years ago.
Needless to say the building has a solid connection with the past – one that was honored and continuously shared during our tour. While walking outside we chatted with a woman, a retired schoolteacher, who campaigned during her summer vacation for the city to convert the grounds into a park back in the 70s. It wasn’t a given – many were eager to develop this central area into a shopping center or condos. She was happy to answer our questions about the process (longer than she had assumed) and the past, but really seemed more vested in the future of the park. She told us that everything we have today – the playground, the open fields, the farmer’s market, the P-patches and extensive gardens – all surpassed her vision for what she was fighting for nearly half a century ago. The big question simmering below the entire tour began to surface – how were we current tenants and community members going to surpass what we now saw before us?
Tara spoke frankly of the future of the fruit trees – we either make a plan to protect the trees we have and begin the long process of planting new ones, or we do nothing and let the orchard become another lost connection to the past. Inaction is a choice, and one that would result in these trees being lost within a generation or two.
From there we went inside and toured some of the tenant spaces within the Good Shepherd Center. It’s an eclectic bunch – but we immediately drew connections between our varied missions and saw opportunities for collaboration and community unfold before us. The Pacific NW Needle Arts Guild showcased their beautiful works made over four decades – and acknowledged that their membership was aging and that they were keen to pass along these arts to a new generation. Not a minute later a tacit agreement was made with a teacher from Meridian School to bring students by, she was sure they would enjoy and appreciate the lessons.
The tour stopped by the Wallingford Senior Center – a thriving community that hosts numerous events and shares vital resources for our elderly neighbors. Then on to Meridian School, a K-5 school that focuses on learning through play and prioritizes equity and inclusion in both their lesson plans and the very ethos of their teaching. Kindergarten teacher Ramiza shared my own sentiment, this building and community was a home away from home. This was also true for Tamara Walker, who heads the C.G. Jung Society, a library devoted to the works of their eponymous psychologist and sociologist. She recounted how she had begun volunteering with the society and how this small library had become a salon of sorts for students all over the state and beyond.
It was finally my turn to share and I recounted some of the history of my organization and our connections to the Wallingford neighborhood. We approach conservation by prioritizing partnerships and community needs – which I felt was a fitting capstone for our tour.
We are so fortunate to have this amazing park and beautiful building because of dedicated community members who saw something worth protecting. This was not lost on any of us – and I hope that anyone who has wandered through the farmer’s market, sat under one of the dozens of apple trees or attended a concert in the old chapel can appreciate that as well. This city is not short of trees or parks – but community is not a given. We must all work to find the fruitful connections that bind us together from the past, present and into our collective future, which we define together.