People + Parks: Veteran Volunteer, at Age 12

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by Elizabeth McGuire

Like many kids, 12-year-old Kei Yarbrough grew up in parks—climbing on playscapes and running around with friends—but she also spent her early years at those same parks picking up trash and mulching trees. She is quick to say that all of it was fun.

Since she was four years old, Kei has been volunteering for parks-related events such as It’s My Park Day, National Trails Day and National Public Lands Day. Alongside her mom, Sharon Yarbrough, Kei has worked on at least 20 different parks around Austin. She and her family consider the volunteer work a regular part of their free time and something enjoyable they do together.

Asked what keeps her motivated about volunteering, Kei’s answer is pretty simple: “It’s fun to get out of the house and get into nature and help.”

Kei has lived in Austin her whole life. Her mom moved here in 1993 and was one of the first Americorps members. You might say that community service is in their blood. Even still, Sharon knew that starting early was key to building longterm dedication and enthusiasm.

“You get real-world benefits from doing service—whether it’s tying yourself to the community or giving yourself job skills,” Sharon said. “I wanted to give her that in the beginning. I know that as she gets older, her passions might not be in conservation where mine lie…but she understands the concept and has a foundation of service.”

Over the years, Kei has learned to work in diverse groups, serve as a leader, and visit parks all over town. When she was seven, she won a Kohl’s “Kids Who Care” scholarship based on her volunteer service.

The most memorable events for her are the ones that included friends, so Kei often recruits friends to join her. “I tell them that when you think about volunteering you might think it’s hard, but when you get there it’s actually much more fun.”

Sharon echoes this idea. “Every time we lead a crew, we look for that balance: making sure volunteers have a good experience and managing the project so you can get it done and everyone leaves with a sense of satisfaction. Often it’s not about getting disgustingly hot and dirty…it’s about family building and community building.”

People + Parks is a series by writer and photographer Elizabeth McGuire and is dedicated to showcasing the people who make our work possible. Check out other stories by choosing the People + Parks category on our blog.