The Secret Lives of Parks

Why We Serve

Episode Summary

How do we gain from what we give? A committed group of veterans and an innovative friends group demonstrate the value of service at a beloved national park site in Washington, D.C.

Episode Notes

Anacostia Park is a lesser-known gem of southeast Washington, D.C. Stretching for 8 miles along both sides of the Anacostia River, the park encompasses a distinctive aquatic garden with lilies and lotuses, a historic golf course from the segregation area, and the only roller-skating rink in the National Park System, among many other scenic vistas and recreational facilities just up the street from the neighborhood where Frederick Douglass spent the last years of his life.

This episode, host Jennifer Errick speaks with staff and volunteers from The Mission Continues; Richard Trent, executive director of the Friends of Anacostia Park; and Jimi Shaughnessy, Veterans Program manager at the National Parks Conservation Association, to learn more about this beloved park and why so many people are motivated to protect it. Featured guests from The Mission Continues include Navy veteran and Chief Strategy Officer Susan Thaxton, Army veteran and former Mission Continues troop leader James Fitzgerald, Marine Corps veteran Angel Carter, Army veteran Bernadette Plummer, and Army veteran and San Antonio troop leader Richard Diaz.

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. This episode was produced by Jennifer Errick with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton, Linda Coutant and Vanessa Pius. 

Original theme music by Chad Fischer.

Special thanks to Keith Thomas, David Alvarado and everyone on staff at The Mission Continues. Learn more at

Learn more about the Friends of Anacostia Park and get in on those monthly skate parties at 

Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at 

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. 

Learn more and join us at

Episode Transcription

The Secret Lives of Parks

Episode 22
Why We Serve

Jennifer Errick: Earlier this summer, dozens of veterans put on their work gloves and joined forces with local advocates to revitalize Anacostia Park in Washington DC. 

This episode, we explore some of the sites and history at this beloved, but often overlooked Riverfront Park. We talk with some of the people who are caring for it and delve into why so many volunteers are motivated to serve and how they gain from what they give. 

I'm Jennifer Errick, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.


Anacostia Park stretches for more than eight miles across both banks of the Anacostia River in southeast Washington DC. One of the city's lesser-known national park sites, this swath of green space cuts diagonally across the district's Ward 7 and Ward 8 neighborhoods, covering an area larger than New York's Central Park. 

Among the thousand-plus acres are rare tidal wetlands and tracks of forest, as well as a riverfront trail that's just up the street from the neighborhood where abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, spent the last years of his life. In the northeast section of Anacostia Park, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens features 45 ponds with cultivated plants including exotic lotus flowers that bloom bright pink in the summer. To the west of these ponds north of the river, the Langston Golf Course is an active 18-hole course that first opened during segregation in 1939 and was one of only 20 golf courses in the country to serve black players. Among the many riverfront vistas and recreational facilities are community centers basketball and shuffleboard courts and a playground with a jungle gym shaped like a pirate ship.

The pirate ship makes a dramatic shape against the blue sky as I pass by it on a bright Tuesday morning in late June. I'm in an Uber on my way to another notable DC landmark, the only roller-skating pavilion in the National Park system. Some of the most popular events at Anacostia Park take place in this 3,300 square foot outdoor rink. And on this day, the pavilion and the facilities around it will serve as a gathering place for a committed troop of veterans who will be making improvements at the park. 

The people I'm on my way to meet are volunteers organized by The Mission Continues. The national nonprofit helps veterans adjust to civilian life by offering new ways to serve. Though it's barely 7:45 in the morning when I arrive, the staff of the Mission Continues have already set up tents for food, water, registration, first aid, and even a DJ whose base heavy soundtrack will give volunteers a boost throughout the day. Everyone is buzzing with excitement.

Susan Thaxton: To be here in Anacostia Park makes perfect sense for us.

Jennifer Errick: That's Susan Thaxton, a Navy veteran based in Washington DC who serves as chief strategy officer for The Mission Continues.

Susan Thaxton: We have veterans from all over the country coming in and it's this big event today, but our work, the service platoon that's here in DC is going on all the time throughout the year. So what we're doing today is building on the work that that has been going on here for years already. We focus on a geographic area, and we find out who are the different organizations that are working together, what is in the community that the community sees as resources that they want to tap into and how can we be a part for that?

Jennifer Errick: Thaxton herself had been out of the military for nearly two decades when she learned about The Mission Continues. She rarely identified herself as a veteran at that time. Now, events like these put her back in touch with a part of herself she values.

Susan Thaxton: I never would have said like, "Hi, I am Susan and I'm a veteran." It just wasn't part of how I thought about myself. But my first week we were starting up a new leadership cohort and there was a man in the cohort, and he had been away from the military for a while and he said, I'm just really looking to do this because when I think back on that time, I feel like it was the best version of myself. And it really resonated with me. And it wasn't that I was struggling, but when he said it, it was like, yeah, I think that that feels right. But it certainly was a time in life that when I look back on it's like, wow, I really did some great stuff that I was really trying new things, doing new things, serving, being part of something bigger. And I think that coming out to a service project, it brings all of that back again.

Jennifer Errick: Improving public lands is a big part of the group's volunteer work.

Susan Thaxton: Parks are a great place for us. This park is amazing. It's huge. And it's right here on the east side of the river, which is sometimes a forgotten side of the river. And so, to be able to come out here, it completely aligns with our work. We bring all this manpower out here. What can we do to make this space even better than it already is? And we work with the community partners who are here. What's their vision for it? What does the community want from this park? What could make it better? What could make it more accessible? What could make it a place that really brings the community to it as a gathering space? Because we know that when there's a place for communities to come together, it's a healthier, stronger, sustainable community. 

And that's what we're trying to do. This is how we are part of that collective action that make it a place for the community to come together.

Jennifer Errick: Anacostia Park also has strong connections to military history and once served as the site of a major veterans protest. During the Great Depression in 1932, thousands of former soldiers set up an elaborate camp on the banks of the Anacostia River before peacefully demonstrating in Washington DC, demanding cash payouts for bonuses they had been promised for their service in World War I. Many of the soldiers had been without work for years, and the government wasn't planning to pay these bonuses until 1945.

The House of Representatives passed a bill to pay the veterans who became known as the Bonus Army, but the Senate voted it down. After two months of demonstrations, President Herbert Hoover sent armed forces to evict the protesters and the military ultimately tear-gassed the veterans and their families and set their camp on fire. Many demonstrators were injured or lost their possessions in the blaze. Historians believe the incident cost Hoover his reelection and paved the way for the GI Bill in 1944.

Soon after I speak with Thaxton, the first of two busloads of participants arrives. It pulls up to the curb in front of the registration tables, and staff rush over to form lines on either side of the door. As volunteers step off the bus, each one receives rows of high-fives on both hands accompanied by boisterous cheering.

Someone comes up and tells me something just off mic. It sounds like, “Now the chaos begins.” 

It's a jovial kind of chaos to be sure, not unlike a large family reunion with hugs and selfies and dozens of animated conversations unfolding at once. Participants have come from as far away as Hawaii and Puerto Rico, New York and Texas, Missouri and Indiana. They represent all branches of the military, and a few non-military volunteers are welcomed with equal fervor. Some of the participants are troop leaders who organize events in their local chapters. Though each person's connection to The Mission Continues is different, everyone I speak with echoes a similar enthusiasm and passion for service.

James Fitzgerald: After I was medically retired in 2014, I moved to New York shortly after and I was lost.

Jennifer Errick: That's Army veteran and former Mission Continues troop leader James Fitzgerald.

James Fitzgerald: I felt like I was rudderless and was placed in a position to really do a self-examination to figure out what my new purpose is now that I've taken off the uniform. And one of the things that I've heard since I was a kid from a lot of my uncles who were also United States Army veterans, the quickest way to connect yourself to a community is through service.

Jennifer Errick: Fitzgerald shares some of the difficulty he experienced transitioning to civilian life after his career in the army.

James Fitzgerald: One of the most fulfilling things about the military was each and every single person had a vital position. You were always needed. A lot of military veterans once were out, that need isn't there. So that was the journey that I was seeking out was, how can I feel needed in my community again? And The Mission Continues gave me that opportunity to feel needed.

Jennifer Errick: Fitzgerald marked his eighth anniversary as a volunteer with The Mission Continues earlier in the week. It was especially meaningful for him to join this event — in Washington DC in June.

James Fitzgerald: For me, during Pride Month as an individual that served during Don't Ask, Don't Tell, as a closeted gay man, coming to our nation's capital for me is one of those full-circle moments. I felt it was necessary for me to come back during Pride month when some of our communities feel like they're under attack, when some of those communities feel like they're not being seen or heard, to know that you have a friend and you have an ally in the military and veteran community because we're everywhere.

Jennifer Errick: He shares a memory that has stayed with him from a project he worked on in 2018 as a troop leader in New York.

James Fitzgerald: We were building a playground in the Bronx, and it was a vacant lot where a building was demolished and there were two kids on skateboards, two Black kids walking down the street. They were maybe 10 or 11 years old. And I just remember them coming up to me and them asking. They were like, "What are you all doing and who you all with?" And I gave them the overview of the Mission Continues, but I think the main thing that those kids heard was veteran and that's what they reacted to. And they looked at me dead in the eye, they were like, "Oh, we didn't know that there were Black veterans." And for me it was one of those ambassador moments. I can give them that right introduction to let them know that yes, there are people like you, so if you ever choose to join that space, there's a pathway that's been laid before you.

Jennifer Errick: Serving as a role model is a natural part of Fitzgerald's volunteer work.

James Fitzgerald: Those younger transitioning veterans that are just hitting the ground may have had a rocky experience similar to mine but are able to find solace in those that are like them and to know that it does get better. It's not just about veteran issues. It's about all issues that concern a veteran.

Jennifer Errick: Other participants in the group share this sentiment that service projects aren't just a way to find purpose after military life, but also a safe space for people from all walks of life to find acceptance.

Angel Carter: We're not just here to volunteer, we are here for each other.

Jennifer Errick: That's Angel Carter, a Marine Corps veteran based near Dallas, Texas, who has volunteered with the Mission Continues for five and a half years.

Angel Carter: And the Marine Corps we were told we're all green, and here, we're all blue.

Jennifer Errick: The blue she's referring to is the vivid color of the volunteers’ branded t-shirts, which serve as a casual kind of uniform. As we speak, a second bus of volunteers arrives, and another wave of people converges by the curb. The crowd begins a new round of cheering.

Angel Carter: We love each other with our differences. As you can hear with the next bus coming up.

Jennifer Errick: I can. The energy level is incredible here.

Angel Carter: It is. And we've been at this for over a week now. Some of these people have been here for 10 days.

Jennifer Errick: Carter tells me that the enthusiasm she feels from her fellow volunteers motivates her, but just as motivating are the connections she makes with the people in the communities where she serves. Just the day before, she had met a family while she was working on a playground at a nearby school.

Angel Carter: I'm working in the back of the tool truck, family's coming by. There's an auntie that's brought four nieces and nephews to go play in the park. Well, we're putting together a pergola where they usually play, and the little girl, she was excited 'cause she was like, "Y'all are painting?" So I took them right down the block to the next school over and was like, let's get them registered. And they spent the rest of the day with us painting and having a great time, and when they're leaving, they want to know, "Hey, when can we do this again?"

Jennifer Errick: A group of local volunteers is participating in the event alongside The Mission Continues and part of their mission is to foster more of this kind of community engagement. 

Richard Trent is the first executive director of The Friends of Anacostia Park, a nonprofit founded just over two years ago to revitalize the park and improve its relevance, especially for the people of Ward seven and Ward eight. These two districts are home to the largest majorities of black residents in the city. These communities have struggled with a range of inequities and barriers to services. 

Trent has a small office on the far side of the skating pavilion, and we take a short break from the heat and the music to talk.

Richard Trent: The pandemic for my wife and I really elevated the importance of urban parks and how they function in the lives of city dwellers, but especially Black and brown communities in cities.

Jennifer Errick: Trent moved to southeast DC with his family from Brooklyn during the pandemic, and they soon made Anacostia Park a regular part of their routines. When Trent saw the opening to lead the park's dedicated nonprofit group, he said it seemed like fateful good luck.

Richard Trent: It felt like a unique opportunity to serve this community that I've loved for a very, very long time, but also a chance to change the discourse around environmentalism, around Black environmental stewardship. For the longest time, when people talked about environmentalism, what they really meant was, let's protect the land and the water. But urban parks problematize that understanding of conservation and shift the focus more towards the conservationists themselves, the people who are actually going to be the stewards of the land and water of 10, 15, 20 years down the road. And so, we like to think of our work here at Friends of Anacostia Park is really shifting that conversation and highlighting not just the conservation, but the conservationist and their health, their mental, physical, social health.

Jennifer Errick: Part of that shift for Trent and his staff is hiring people in the community to work in different capacities for the park.

Richard Trent: Especially in communities like Anacostia that have languished from decades and decades of institutional neglect, disinvestment, inequitable development, you really have to make sure that you're speaking to people's bottom lines. We wanted to make sure that the restoration of Anacostia Park was tethered to some measure of life improvement for the Black residents that surround this park. Specifically around job creation, we've got a Friends Corps program that employs last year, 20 plus people, paying them a living wage to work alongside park rangers doing everything from trash pickup and community engagement to invasive species removal. They've removed 25,000 pounds of trash from the forest since November of 2022. So, it’s not just a feelgood story. They're actually doing really, really important work to clean up the watershed.

Jennifer Errick: Trent and his staff at Friends of Anacostia Park also focus on hosting a range of culturally relevant programs, from percussion workshops to double-Dutch jump rope lessons to birdwatching.

Richard Trent: We pay local residents a stipend to come into the park and actually facilitate programming. There's so much untapped wisdom and expertise in Ward 7 and Ward 8 and Anacostia. We just want to make sure that we're activating the park as a platform for folks to share their skills, share their talents, but also get paid for it.

Jennifer Errick: Some of the largest events at the park are go-go concerts, a distinctive DC style of funk, and monthly roller-skating parties at the pavilion during summer and fall. These events serve not just as fun gathering spaces, but also vital feedback loops for Trent and his staff.

Richard Trent: There's a huge skate culture here. So, folks come down, there's free boat rides in partnership with the Anacostia Watershed Society. There's free skate rentals for families, so you don't have to worry about getting skates. You could just show up. Free food for a lot of folks that show up, and it's beautiful just tabling from local community nonprofits. So, we leverage activations like that as almost, like, casual, culturally relevant data gathering events. So, we are asking folks about their visions for the future of the park and their hopes for the future of the park. We're capturing that information. We're hosting town halls at some of these events, capturing that information, taking it back to the National Park Service, and then as their official philanthropic partner, really working out what we can and cannot fundraise for and creating a plan. So, it's actually a model of participatory planning that we hope is undoing the legacy of cutting Black folks out of the development of their own communities.

Jennifer Errick: It's also a model that Trent feels can work in many other places.

Richard Trent: There are urban parks like this across the country that are key mental and social health resources for Black communities, Black and brown communities. So, this isn't just a one-off story of climate resiliency and community led conservation in Anacostia. We believe that this is a replicable, scalable model for deputizing local residents, putting them at the helm of a restoration effort and conservation effort, creating jobs as a result and really meeting the double bottom lines of improving these urban environments at the same time that you're improving the economic status of historically disadvantaged communities.

Jennifer Errick: The partnership with The Mission Continues began when the veterans organization approached the friends group with ideas. Organizers with The Mission Continues, listen to what the park's biggest needs were and took care of most of the logistics. Trent said he was blown away by their approach and enthusiasm.

Richard Trent: They didn't need anything from us, you know what I mean? It was just like, we're here to help. We've got all the tools, and that sort of service is really mindful and respectful because grassroots organizations like ours, even volunteer events are big expenditures of folks' time, energy and resources. So, when a volunteer group shows up and they're just like, yep, we're ready. We got everything. You just set us up for success, show us where the bathrooms are at, that's the type of volunteer experience that really respects people's time. So, we just, I appreciate them.

[Music break]

Jennifer Errick: Back outside, volunteers are putting their tools and enthusiasm to good use, cleaning, painting, measuring and hammering in small teams throughout the area. One of the volunteers I meet is Bernadette Plummer, a 22-year Army veteran who learned about The Mission Continues through a service-focused sorority she volunteers with. She's been involved with the group on and off for more than three years. When I ask her what motivates her to devote so much of her life to various causes, I'm struck by her answer.

Bernadette Plummer: I am blessed to come from where I'm at, to be where I'm at now. So, I was born in the projects in Chicago and now I'm not living that same life, and my life has evolved, and I have been blessed. And so, you find out when you're rich when you're able to give something away. I'm rich because I have the ability to give.

Jennifer Errick: I hear similar sentiments from Richard Diaz, a platoon leader from San Antonio, Texas, who, like Plummer, serves with numerous volunteer groups, including the Wounded Warrior Project, his local Rotary club, and the Veterans Advisory Council for my organization, the National Parks Conservation Association. As he tells me about some of the hardships he's overcome in his life, he talks about his service as a kind of centering force that helped him grow. As he speaks, he refers back to his younger self in the third person.

Richard Diaz: Little Richie was told that he wouldn't be able to be anything other than this statistic, that statistic, and I ended up being that. My third grade teacher told me out of hate that I would be in prison just like my father. And that ended up coming to fruition, self-fulfilled prophecy, something that I heard, and I believed, and that was my problem was I believed it. At that time and long after, and people just told me this was where I'm going to fit because of what I looked like, because of my name, because of the color my skin. They said, this is your little box right here. And I was put in that box, and I stayed in that box for so long until I was like, you know what? This ain't my box. And I stopped listening to what everybody said I was, who I was, and I just listened to what my heart was telling me.

Jennifer Errick: Part of Diaz's Journey has been exploring his Native American roots and learning about his culture. He's begun studying traditional medicines, and he uses his research to practice self-healing. His volunteer service helps him connect this process of self-healing with helping others.

Richard Diaz: The best part of this is being able to be my best self for my brothers and sisters here. It's been a long journey to pick myself up to that, to who I am today, where I'm doing these leadership things, and I see some of the veterans here in different times and different parts of their journey where they're going to those next levels, and I'm grateful that I'm here and able to share and guide them through their next steps. That's really been awesome.

Jennifer Errick: One of the last people I get to speak with at the event is ironically, the person who invited me to be here in the first place. Former Marine, Jimi Shaughnessy, served for four years with The Mission Continues and is now Veterans program manager at the National Parks Conservation Association.

Jimi Shaughnessy: I got involved with The Mission Continues by accident. I was sitting in the Student Veterans Lounge at Hunter College, and some other student came in with a bright blue shirt on that said, The Mission Continues. And I asked, "What is that?"

Jennifer Errick: Shaughnessy was intrigued by the group but wasn't ready yet to volunteer. Then he graduated, moved across the country and happened to see the founder of the Mission Continues on the Daily Show. He decided to apply for a fellowship and spent about six months as a volunteer working with youth in San Francisco before becoming a troop leader and eventually a staff member with the organization.

Jimi Shaughnessy: In the Marine Corps is very much lead from the front, charge like a bull, get it done. And what The Mission Continues was teaching us was leadership is not always in the front. Sometimes it's alongside, or sometimes it's even not being visible and being behind the scenes. And that was a big wake-up call for a lot of my fellow Mission Continues folks, was it's no longer about me in the front. The spotlight needs to be shifted to the community members and what they want, what they need.

Jennifer Errick: Now in his role within NPCA, Shaughnessy works to harness this spirit of leadership and service, not just into workdays like this one, but also political advocacy.

Jimi Shaughnessy: These veterans who volunteer with The Mission Continues, they care about our communities, and they care about our future, and they care about our parks. We can provide them with another opportunity to lend their voice in support of protecting these places that they care about. When we're in the place, we have the chance to talk about the issues facing that park and let the veteran know the ways in which they can engage in civic discourse that will help to sometimes shape, sometimes simply protect what's already there, but we give them an opportunity to not be scared of advocacy, to not be scared of lobbying.

Jennifer Errick: Shaughnessy describes a series of summer events he helped organize as part of the partnership.

Jimi Shaughnessy: It was called Summer Service Slam. It went on for about three summers in a row, and it took place over the same week or weekend in national parks across the country. Veterans would camp out for the weekend, we'd have a service project on a Saturday, and we would get the chance to explore the park and recreate and become educated on the ecosystems and on the issues. Time and time again, veterans recall those retreats and those service projects as being life changing or sometimes life affirming.

Jennifer Errick: Beyond the specific events in the parks, Shaughnessy speaks to the symbolism of what he and so many others are doing by giving their time and care to improving the places they touch, trail by trail and playground by playground.

Jimi Shaughnessy: There are multiple narratives of patriotism, and this is one example of that. All too often, veterans in the military are used in the political landscape for individual, sometimes campaign gains. And it's unfair because these are people, these are humans who are grappling with the decisions they've made or maybe the decisions they were not allowed to make, and their idea of patriotism should be fluid, and it should be able to change over time. 

Jennifer Errick: He emphasizes one point that everyone at the event can likely agree with.

Jimi Shaughnessy: There is no other organization like The Mission Continues.

Jennifer Errick: I can tell.

Jimi Shaughnessy: That would be exhausting.


Jennifer Errick: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. 

Episode 22, Why We Serve, was produced by me, Jennifer Errick, with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton, Linda Coutant and Vanessa Pius. 

Original theme music by Chad Fischer. 

Special thanks to Keith Thomas, David Alvarado and everyone on staff at The Mission Continues. Learn more at

Learn more about the Friends of Anacostia Park and get in on those monthly skate parties at 

Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at the For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. 

And we're proud of it, too. 

You can join the Fight to preserve our national parks. Learn more and join us at

Angel Carter: I can't thank them enough because it completes my heart.