Photography by Owen Jones

Barbara Cohen’s shovel sliced through the soil on a crisp fall morning at Willis Winters Park. When the hole was good and deep, she gently removed a plant from its plastic container and spread its roots into the ground. She scooped a few handfuls of loose dirt into the hole, just in time for a butterfly to feed off the flower’s nectar.

Cohen, with the help of several volunteers, installed District 14’s first pollinator garden to help monarch butterflies on their annual migration. It is one of many upgrades the community can enjoy thanks to a new friends group dedicated to improving the park.

Willis Winters Park lacked basic park necessities, such as trash cans, benches and picnic tables, when Cohen and Mary Mesh decided to take action about three years ago. Together with like-minded neighbors, they began lobbying the Dallas Park and Recreation Department for more maintenance.

Through their successful activism, the group began to grow. In January 2020, it became an official friends group with a board and bylaws.

“It shows the power of what a community can do,” Cohen says. “You don’t have to have money. You just have to be willing to sit down and write a zillion emails and follow up on those emails.”

One of the group’s first projects was reopening the central walkway so visitors could travel more easily from the front of the park to the back, without walking around the perimeter. The gates had been locked since 2012 because of continued graffiti on the concession stand and bathrooms. But renewed community interest in the park spurred City of Dallas officials to spray anti-graffiti sealant on the buildings and reopen the gates.

It also created more opportunities for neighbors to visit Will’s Place, a memorial pavilion to honor Will Winters, a Woodrow Wilson sophomore who died in 2005 from complications following foot surgery.

In addition, the group is responsible for a new double barbecue grill by the historic pavilion and on-demand lighting at the basketball courts that is available at the push of a button from 5-11 p.m.

“There was a time when the park had its heyday, and then it sat,” Cohen says. “It’s not because anyone hated it. It didn’t have anybody behind it. Nothing was getting done.”

Willis Winters Park was originally named after the Randall family, which owned the land that became the park. In the early 20th century, the Park and Recreation Board did not have funds to purchase the land, so it leased 11 acres from the Randall estate. The board acquired the land in 1922 after a three-year lease.

The park was renamed Willis Winters Park in 2019 when neighbor Willis Winters retired from his post as longtime director of the Park and Recreation Department.

The land sits in the heart of the neighborhood at 100 N. Glasgow Drive between Woodrow Wilson High School and Juliette Fowler Communities. Each year, Friends of Willis Winters Park surveys Woodrow, Juliette Fowler, Junius Heights Historic District and other stakeholders to produce a list of improvements to pursue.

“Friends of Willis Winters Park is for the preservation of our park, and that’s what we want to do,” Cohen says. “Everyone should be doing something, and communication is key. There are plenty of opportunities to give back in different ways.”

The group will continue to request additional trash cans, water fountains and doggie waste stations available through the park department’s maintenance budget. But there are several other long-term projects that would require grants.

After seeking community feedback, the big-ticket items do not include the proposed game field at the park.

Instead, Friends of Willis Winters Park will focus its efforts on upgrading the playground and organizing a mural contest to be painted on the basketball court. This year, the group hopes to host a field day, Easter egg hunt and other events that were canceled in 2020.

“Everything we do is not for now. It’s for the future,” Cohen says. “With all the changes going on in the community, if we can hold on to this little piece of green space, it will be amazing.”

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