- Associated Press - Saturday, May 2, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Five years ago, when Susan Crookston was trying to raise $2.2 million in six months to buy land to build a riverfront park in Aspinwall, she asked anyone who would listen - even the local Boy Scout troop - for fundraising help.

When Che Esch, then a 12-year-old seventh-grader, heard her presentation, he thought maybe he could mow lawns and donate the proceeds. And to the tune of $10,000, he succeeded.

Over the years, Che, now 17, has dedicated hundreds of hours to helping the Aspinwall Riverfront Park take shape. He spent the next summer rehabbing an old shed on the park property, turning it into a facility for ice skate rentals and hot chocolate. He also spoke at the park’s groundbreaking in 2013 and helps in untold smaller ways.

“He’s made an amazing contribution to the park,” said Crookston, founder of the park. “The level of his commitment and generosity really inspires others to give as well, and really gives people a sense of what they can do when they put their minds to it.”

Che (pronounced Shay), a junior at Fox Chapel Area High School, is one of seven finalists for Most Outstanding Volunteer of the Year in the local 2014 Jefferson Awards for Public Service program, chosen from 48 local award winners. All will be honored at an awards ceremony May 4, where the most outstanding volunteer winner will be announced. That person will travel to Washington, D.C., this summer for the national Jefferson Awards ceremony.

As part of the program, Nonprofit Talent will donate $1,000 to the Aspinwall Riverfront Park on Esch’s behalf.

The Aspinwall Riverfront Park came about starting in 2010, when Ms. Crookston and others caught wind of a proposal to purchase the land for a parking lot. The community banded together to hold fundraisers to purchase it instead for use as a park - including the Eschs.

Che and his father fashioned a mobile lawn cart, attaching bars to a red Little Tikes wagon with a yellow door to hold a gas can and weed wacker. They went to a community meeting to advertise their efforts and got enough interest to set up a schedule of homes. And they began to push the wagon through the tightly packed community of Aspinwall, charging $15 per lawn.

David Esch, Che’s father, estimated that by the end of the summer, as word spread about what they were doing, Che was mowing at least 20 lawns per week. At first Mr. Esch accompanied him, but eventually he was cutting lawns on his own.

Che met his goal of $5,000 and was able to secure a matching grant of $5,000 through the Colcom Foundation and Hillman Foundation, which had pledged to match donations from the community.

“There was a lot of energy throughout the neighborhood in terms of getting this money raised in such a short amount of time - if we didn’t raise the money this beautiful property would be turned into a parking lot,” said Che. “At the time I was young - I liked parks, and I still like parks. It was something that I thought I could help with.”

The sight of a little kid pulling a lawnmower and a wagon around the neighborhood became a symbol reflecting that anyone could help with the park effort, said Mr. Esch. Altogether, more than 3,000 people were involved with the the effort, said Crookston, with more than $14,000 raised by children, in the form of lemonade stands and T-shirt sales.

When Che was looking for an Eagle Scout project the next summer, he asked Crookston if she had any projects in the park. She asked him to rehab a run-down shed into a refreshment stand and ice skate rental facility. The project involved raising funds and organizing about 150 hours of volunteer labor, as well as physical labor on his part.

“He’s done things that are more high profile but he and his family also show up and help in all different circumstances,” she said. “He’s happy to do a lot of grunt work - things that no one would notice but really make the park a special place.”

And these days, Che is grateful to the park in return. “I just feel lucky to be a part of this,” he said. “This energy that I experienced was pretty profound for me. I don’t think this kind of community effort comes around very often.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1JSwd1m

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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