Bendito’s family eventually relocated to South Wenatchee, a neighborhood of 5,000 people. While rents here are more affordable than in neighborhoods along the river and the foothills, the disparities are much greater. Says Misael Fajardo-Perez, a local minister, most South Wenatchee families make their living through farm labor, and many struggle to make ends meet. “We have poverty and drug problems, high childhood obesity rates, and a lack of good infrastructure,” Fajardo-Perez says. “The needs in this community can often feel overwhelming.”
Those disparities are no more evident than at the neighborhood park down the road from Bendito’s home. Kiwanis Methow Park is one of the only public green spaces in South Wenatchee, but for decades, it had attracted the wrong kind of attention from city leaders. To discourage gang activity, the city cut down trees and installed a chain-link fence and towering industrial floodlights. For years, kids growing up nearby were warned away from spending time there. Neighbors say the gang activity has subsided, but the park’s reputation as an unsafe space lingers, especially among outsiders.
“This is an injustice, but it’s our reality,” says Bendito’s mother, Teresa Zepeda-Sosa. She wishes Kiwanis Methow Park looked as nice as the parks in the wealthier parts of town. There’s not much programing in Kiwanis Methow, and the park lacks basic facilities, like restrooms. Back in Mexico, Zepeda-Sosa says, she would walk around her old neighborhood park every Sunday with her family. Here she can’t visit Kiwanis Methow with her elderly mother, because there’s no wheelchair accessibility.
In 2016, Zepeda-Sosa encountered Cary Simmons at a local mariachi festival. “My mom was like, ‘What’s this white guy doing at a Mexican cultural event? We better see what he’s about,’” Bendito recalls.
“This is an injustice, but it’s our reality.”
Zepeda-Sosa marched up to Simmons and introduced herself. She learned he worked as a project manager for Trust for Public Land, an organization with a long history of helping conserve trails and open lands around Wenatchee—improvements that have raised the city’s profile as an outdoor adventure destination. Now Simmons was in South Wenatchee because Trust for Public Land knew this part of town needed a great park.
“Kiwanis Methow Park was a place with lots of potential, but it was in rough shape, and some neighbors didn’t feel safe there,” says Simmons. “I was at the festival to tell residents about Trust for Public Land’s effort to renovate the park, to seek their input and learn what they wanted the park to become, and to recruit volunteers to lead the redesign.”
After years of outsiders showing up and talking about making change, Bendito and Zepeda-Sosa say they’d learned to be skeptical. “We’ve had many past administrations and organizations making false promises,” says Bendito. But the chance to help lead and organize their community around an outcome as tangible as a new park was exciting. “Once we found that out, we wanted to help any way we could.”
Bendito and her mother were among the first South Wenatchee residents to sign up as volunteers to revitalize Kiwanis Methow. Three years later, their group is more than 120 members strong. They call themselves the Parque Padrinos, or godparents of the park.
“In our culture, everyone has lots of padrinos and madrinas. They’re people you choose to take care of you, watch over you, and support you,” Bendito explains. Padrinos and madrinas take responsibility for nurturing an extended family or community. At a big celebration, like a wedding or quinceañera, one padrino can be in charge of the cake, while another madrina can be in charge of the music. Says Bendito, “We’re doing that for this park.”