Nine-year-old Stephen Holden said he couldn't sleep the night he heard his favorite park curator's job could be cut from the 2013 Westchester County Budget.
Stephen, a 4th grader at George Washington Elementary School in White Plains, visits Cranberry Lake Preserve in North White Plains regularly. He said programs led by curators at the preserve have taught him valuable lessons about plants, animals and other topics.
"I've always liked Cranberry Lake Preserve and I've always liked nature," Stephen said. "This is a very cool place."
But this year's county budget proposal includes the elimination of three full-time park curators. Park curators serve as both educators and park rangers, interacting with visitors while maintaining trails, monitoring animal behaviors, enforcing park policy and cleaning litter and graffiti. They also run educational programs for children and adults. Stephen recently camped out in the Cranberry Lake Preserve with a group of other kids.
The positions would be eliminated at the Cranberry Lake Preserve in North White Plains, Lenoir Preserve in Yonkers and Edith Read Wildlife Sanctuary in Rye.
"They are just great, they just are so good to the kids and they really get them inspired," said Kristine Holden, Stephen's mom. "All the kids come out of the camp so excited and I think it would be shame if they had fewer opportunities like that."
So, as Stephen sat in bed after learning that funding at the Cranberry Lake Preserve could be reduced, he decided he needed to take action.
"I came downstairs and said 'hey dad, I have an idea'," Stephen said. "I said 'I want to start a petition', and that's what I did."
The petition started as a letter Stephen distributed to friends, family and neighbors. Kristine Holden later put the letter online, where more than 155 supporters have signed supporting more funding to the parks budget.
"It's a great opportunity for (kids) to get outdoors and experience nature and really learn in a hands-on way instead of sitting in a classroom," said Kristine Holden.
This isn't the first time the nature preserves have been on the budget chopping block. Just last year, County Executive Robert Astorino's original budget called for the closure of six nature centers within county preserves, which would have eliminated even more programs and curator positions.
The final budget eventually restored funding for the centers, providing hope the same thing could happen this year. The Westchester County Board of Legislators is expected to vote on a budget within the next two weeks. Astorino's initial budget proposal currently calls for the elimination of 189 county jobs and 126 layoffs to reach a zero percent tax rate increase.
Stephen and hundreds of other parks supporters will spend the next few days hoping there is enough room in the budget to squeeze in their favorite park curators.
"They mean a lot," Stephen said. "They really do mean a lot to me."