Photo by Danny Fulgencio

David Klempin and Nola Rae Smith started the Friends of Oak Cliff Parks in 2002 because City of Dallas budget cuts had left many neighborhood parks in disrepair, particularly in the southern sector, for years.

The gardening buddies started out planting rose bushes and wound up kicking off a movement that would transform and preserve our neighborhood’s historic parks.

Since then, the group has won numerous awards from the National Garden Clubs, and they’ve taken on restoration projects that will resonate for decades to come.

The group donates plants and other materials to the parks and provides about 4,000 hours of volunteer work per year as part of its mission to maintain Oak Cliff’s historic parks — Kiest, Founders, Lake Cliff and Kidd Springs.

And it’s not always just gardening.

Member Cynthia Mulcahy brought Kidd Springs Park’s Japanese garden to light in 2015.

She found that the family of Ethel Buell of Tulsa, Oklahoma, sold underpriced Japanese antiquities to the City of Dallas in the 1960s. The pieces were placed in Kidd Springs Park in 1971 and forgotten for decades. Some of the treasures, like a 12-foot Torii gate that was placed in the water, are gone now.

But a 17th century Buddhist carved stone is among the works still there, and Mulcahy recently discovered that it’s the oldest piece of art the city owns. An expert recently dated it to 1682.

The Friends of Oak Cliff Parks is planting a Japanese maple demonstration garden there as well as nectar plants to draw pollinators.

The group also spent about 10 years raising money and eventually pushing for city bond funds to pay for restoration of the Works Progress Administration-era pergola and water rill at Kiest Park.

The group recently created a picnic area and outdoor classroom, along with a parking area and 1-mile soft walking trail at the Kiest Park Conservation Area, just south of the park. This “unspoiled wood” also had been forgotten and neglected for decades.

A mite-borne virus, rose rosette, killed all of the rose bushes at Lake Cliff Park in 2017. So the Friends of Oak Cliff parks replaced them with a crepe myrtle demonstration garden, which showcases 26 varieties of the flowering tree. They also added signs to identify plants in the park.

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Rose plants at Kiest Park also fell victim to rose rosette. The group currently is working to replace them, and it’s quite a job. There are 16 beds comprising about 600 square feet each.

Volunteers are crucial to the group’s mission, and many of them come via the city’s volunteer coordinator. 

Companies including Southwest Airlines, BB&T and Frost banks and KPMG Accounting do corporate volunteer days with the group. Schools and churches also offer service hours.

“I tell you, that helps so much,” says the group’s president Jon Papp. “When you have those young people out there, you can get so much more done than us old people.”

The group has workdays from 8:30-10:30 a.m. almost every Saturday, and volunteers are welcome. Check the calendar on their website, friendsofoakcliffparks.org, to see where they’ll be. Bring gloves and hand tools if you have them.

Join the Friends of Oak Cliff Parks for $20 per year for individuals or $35 for a household. Adults 62 and older can join for $10 per person and $15 per household. Pay dues online or by mail: Friends of Oak Cliff Parks Membership, P.O. Box 210124, Dallas, Texas 75211.