Editor’s Note: Central Park was designed to bring New Yorkers together. While our community is vibrant and varied, we’re united by a shared love for these 843 acres. The Park is integral to many people’s lives, and we’re talking to some of them to get to know the people behind the people’s Park.
When you meet Martha and Serena today, it’s hard to imagine they haven’t known each other their entire lives. Each with a palpable energy that only rivals the other’s, an infectious warmth, and generous spirit, they seamlessly weave their sentences together to tell the story of how they met and put down roots in New York City. Serena is now Manager of Volunteer Engagement at the Central Park Conservancy. Martha also joined the Conservancy as a temporary graphic designer on the Communications team from 2019 to 2021, and she remains a familiar face among the staff as an active Landscape Management and Greeter volunteer. But their connection to Central Park started much earlier and runs even deeper.
“YOU HAVE ARRIVED”
Martha and Serena are both intimately familiar with Central Park, yet it remains a magical place even after all these years. “The Mall,” Martha confides, “it still gives me chills.” When asked how she would describe the Park in only three words, she doesn’t need much time—each visit is a powerful experience: “Spectacular, emotional, exciting.”
And for Serena? She elaborates a bit more, getting to the crux of the connection so many of us have to this space. “It is beautiful; it is simple; it is just the place I want to be.” Serena became intoxicated with the Park on her first visit to New York after graduating high school. “You can spend hours in Central Park, looking at the trees, the squirrels, the people on skates and bicycles. It’s just an incredible universe… I fell in love with Central Park then, at 18 [years old].” To this day, Serena says she could never imagine living in New York without the Park: “The Park is just calling to you.”
Martha confirms this: “She wakes up every morning so happy to come to the Park and work here!”
"You have to understand," Serena explains. "In the morning when you enter the Park, you see the sunrise through the trees. And the Reservoir, even on a super cold day, you look at it with those buildings behind it…can you believe this is my office?! Truly, I feel so blessed. It’s incredible to have a job in Central Park. For a gardener, there’s nothing better.” She equates it to an actor reaching the Broadway stage. “You have arrived.”
“THE WORLD IS ONE LITTLE PLACE”
While their shared connection to Central Park instantly bonded them, it took a fortuitous turn of events for the two to meet. Serena grew up outside Milan, Italy. At the age of 31, she left the life she knew and an established advertising career for Mykonos, Greece, where she became a gardener and landscaper. Martha, born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, moved to New York City to expand her career in graphic design.
They may never have crossed paths had Martha’s good friend from New York not relocated to Mykonos in 2013 and met Serena. “She started feeling like every time she was with [me], she was with Martha,” Serena recalls. “She told me, ‘If it’s not a match made in heaven, it's going to be the best of friendships.’” It turns out it was both.
After the initial introduction, Martha and Serena’s conversations quickly transitioned from email to WhatsApp to Skype. “We started this beautiful exchange,” Martha remembers. “We were grownups by then, and you just open yourself up. You don't pretend, you don't lie. This is who I am… And we went back and forth, and we shared photos, stories, who we were.”
After their first Skype call, Serena told Martha she wanted to come to New York and meet in person. A day later, her plane landed at JFK. Martha surprised Serena at the airport, and “everything blurred like in the movies,” Martha says. Serena confirms, “I found you. I had been looking my whole life for ‘that person,’ and when you find that person…that’s it."
CENTRAL TO THEIR LIVES
Martha remembers, “Serena said to me, ‘the first thing I want to do is volunteer in Central Park.’” The next day, they walked to the Conservancy’s recreation center at North Meadow where they were directed to a team of volunteers raking leaves along the Park’s perimeter by the Guggenheim. They soon had rakes in hand.
From then on, any time Serena was in New York, they volunteered for the Conservancy. Martha remembers, “We always came to Central Park. We went to the Conservatory Garden; we went to Turtle Pond. We biked, played tennis, had picnics. Central Park was always [part of] her visits.”
Years later, Serena—by then a Volunteer Coordinator with the Conservancy—once again found herself raking leaves in the same landscape along Fifth Avenue. There’s pride in her voice as she recalls this full-circle moment, leading a group of 20 people in the very same activity that solidified her connection to the Park.
FOR THE GOOD OF THE PARK
“I spent hours volunteering,” says Serena. (470 hours in a year and half, to be exact.) “My entire time in the City is thanks to Central Park. If you look at my LinkedIn,” she jokes, “it’s all about Central Park!” Her dedication to the Park caught the attention of Conservancy staff, and she was eventually offered a full-time position working for the organization whose mission it is to not only maintain and restore this greenspace but celebrate it as a sanctuary for New Yorkers. Over the past seven years, she quickly moved up at the Conservancy, from Volunteer Field Program Assistant to Volunteer Coordinator to her current role as Manager of Volunteer Engagement.
Building upon what she learned as a gardener in Mykonos, Serena acquired a wealth of knowledge about plant life in the Park. “She learned [everything about] the nature, [first] the Mediterranean nature, and now coming here, she learned the nature in this part of the world. You can ask her every plant, every tree, every flower, every corner of the Park, everything—she knows,” says Martha. Indeed, a morning run-in with Serena in the Park often leads to a quick tutorial on how to spot a viburnum about to bloom, or an oak sapling that took root over the winter.
The Conservancy relies on a volunteer force of nearly 3,500 people each year; it is thanks to this community that loves, advocates, and cares for all aspects of the Park that it remains beautiful and an invaluable asset to New York. Both Serena and Martha note the importance of volunteerism, not only to the Park but to their own personal growth and connection to New York. “Volunteering—generally speaking—is the one thing you want to do as a newbie anywhere. You start meeting people that have your own interests and passion. You also learn how to move around in the City…you really don’t feel like a fish out of water. You share things… Most of our friends [today] come from volunteering. That is invaluable,” Serena advises.
“They’re beautiful people,” Martha says of their fellow volunteers. “Good-hearted. They give for the good of the City, for the good of the Park.”
NEW YORK STATE OF MIND
Martha considers Serena and herself citizens of the world, but they are New Yorkers through and through. “New York is it,” Martha says. “Central Park and New York.” Serena agrees; Central Park and New York City are inextricably linked.
They say you become a “real” New Yorker after living here for 10 years. With 26 years of NYC-living under her belt, Martha has more than earned that accolade. She reminisces about her many years spent getting to know the City, but what stands out above all else is Central Park. “Picnics with friends [in the Park]… If the weather permitted, we were here. Families, singles, groups. It didn’t matter, as long as we could be in the Park. It was the cool New York way to spend your summer weekend.” Martha also trained to run the NYC Marathon, which she completed three times. Crossing the finish line in Central Park was her motivation.
Martha and Serena have now been together for nine years. Central Park has been part of their daily lives—and an integral part of their relationship—throughout it all. Every year when Martha and Serena celebrate Serena's anniversary of being hired at the Conservancy, they choose a different part of the Park to explore and celebrate. When the City reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered stores, restaurants, and cultural institutions, a meal at the Boathouse overlooking the Lake was their first foray back into the world. Although almost a decade has passed since their first day volunteering in the Park together, the excitement and joy the Park elicits in them has never waned.
THE FRAGILITY AND FUTURE OF THE PARK
Both Martha and Serena feel compelled to speak out to protect this valuable—and fragile—greenspace: the Park needs everyone to get involved in its care. “People need to respect the space,” Serena says while shaking her head. “[Conservancy] gardeners, groundskeepers, [they all] spend so much of their precious time removing litter, picking up trash from the grounds.” What Serena is referring to—plastic bags and discarded masks in the woodlands, coffee cups and water bottles in the playgrounds, mallards with plastic rings around their beaks and necks or tangled in fishing wire—is a pervasive problem.
But if you’re in need of a dose of optimism, Martha and Serena are the people to which to turn. All visitors can help, and even the smallest actions can have huge implications on the Park and the environment at large. In the face of the day-to-day challenges that arise in caring for greenspaces like Central Park, including significantly increased foot traffic and the ongoing effects of climate change, Martha and Serena’s love of the Park gives them—and all who meet them—purpose and hope for a resilient future.
“We have a whole lot of people supporting the Park in many ways,” Serena offers. “Making it beautiful, functioning, interesting, and healthy for everyone, and keeping them inspired and engaged is my ultimate goal. We can do that. I’m very hopeful for the future of this organization.” And, she points out, it all comes back to the people of the park. “Volunteers, donors, ambassadors, and stewards of the Park are an essential part of the Conservancy. The act of giving their time, talent, and skills generates a ripple effect of goodwill throughout our community.”
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