Georgia’s first Hispanic park stemmed from a daughter’s love. After her mother passed away in 2008, Cuban American journalist Isabel González Whitaker felt a calling to continue her legacy. “She died in my arms, so it was difficult and traumatic”, she admits. Sara González died at the age of 72 from a heart attack and at her funeral, her daughter realized how many lives the Hispanic activist had touched. “People were coming up to me and giving me hugs and telling me that my mother had helped them, that she had been kind to them, that she was there for them in a way that I never knew”, Isabel recalls.
At first she wanted to name a highway after her mom —a Hispanic rights advocate and former president of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, who helped thousands of Latinos launch their business ventures— but decided to name a park after her instead. That’s how Sara J. González Park — the first park in Georgia named after a Hispanic— came to be.
“My mother was a Cuban immigrant who came to his country with nothing but two children and two suitcases and made a life for herself”, Isabel says. The outpour of love she received at her mom’s funeral from people Sara had helped along her journey, made Isabel rethink her own mission in life. “My mom had a humble life, she didn’t make millions of dollars, but I felt like my definition of success changed that day”, she reflects. “She helped other people and gave support and hugs and put her neck out for other people in ways that I didn’t know about. It pivoted my whole perspective”.
Now she is giving back to her community in the most rewarding way. Although she began to rebuild the park slowly, cleaning up and planting, after raising almost $300,000, she has turned it into a vibrant oasis for Hispanic working families and all kinds of visitors. “My son plays in the playground, which always makes me cry. I feel like he gets to know his grandmother through what the park represents”, Isabel says. “It gives me so much joy to see him playing there with every kind of child you can imagine: special needs, upper middle class, white, black, Hispanic, they all convene there. That’s a real testimony to the values my mother embraced”.
Besides having wheelchair sidewalks throughout the park, the playground is inclusive and designed for children of all abilities. They are also building a soccer field and a “learning nook” that will open in December, a sheltered transparent pergola with a round bench and long table to plug in computers and other equipment. Besides offering English classes to immigrants and tutoring to students, Isabel hopes to soon have financial literacy courses. She is also working on a community eatable garden with Latino herbs, inspired by the thyme, rosemary and peppers her mother grew in her backyard when Isabel was a child.
“I’m proud. I’m honored to be able to do it in her name. It’s a full time job I don’t get paid for, but it gives me tremendous fulfillment in my heart”, the writer says of being a park steward and helping the growing Latin community in Georgia. “I want to give them the happy memories they deserve”.
In the process, she is creating happy memories of her own. “If you feel the calling to make a difference, you can”, she emphasizes. “I want to encourage people that if they have a dream, they can do it”.
The green landscape is a canvas with infinite possibilities. “It’s only 1.5 acres, but I’m always thinking of new ideas”, admits Isabel, who sees the park as a way to keep her mother’s memory —and her efforts to improves the lives of Hispanics— alive and flourishing. “I hope that other people start looking at parks as living, breathing entities that are as alive as the community lets them be”, she concludes.