The Volunteer: How Tim McKinney helps Prospect Park, and the park helps him

Home Brooklyn Life The Volunteer: How Tim McKinney helps Prospect Park, and the park helps him

Tim McKinney lifts the black metal trash barrel with an efficiency that belies his thin 63-year-old frame. Placing a clear plastic garbage bag over its opening, McKinney tips the canister over, allowing a stream of refuse to flow. There are soda cans, take-away boxes, and several thick, unidentifiable liquids. An overwhelming scent of garbage hangs in the air as McKinney turns the bag upright, ties it shut, and throws it on his wheelbarrow. The trash barrel gets a new liner. Inhaling a deep breath, his blue eyes widen. Exhaling, his stubbled cheeks inflate before falling back in line with his narrow face. McKinney smiles and lifts the wheelbarrow, guiding its tire over the bumpy pavement running through the Prospect Park woods. There are five more barrels to go.

Tim McKinney doing his volunteer work in Prospect Park (Alexander Abnos/ The Brooklyn Ink)


“It’s really important to get that done,” McKinney says, placing a gritty emphasis on the last three words. “If people walk into a sewer, then yeah, they’re going to throw their trash everywhere. If they walk into a place that’s kind of neat, they’re gonna use the trash barrel.”

It’s been three years since McKinney decided to add “garbage man” to the list of his responsibilities as a volunteer in Brooklyn’s largest recreation area. In that time, the footpaths of the park’s East side have gone from littler-filled to lovely. While McKinney takes great pride in the change, he is one of very few people that actually notices. He admits this readily. McKinney went running on these paths 40 years ago, when the notion of the work put into them never crossed his mind. Today, the work is his escape.

Originally from Staten Island, McKinney moved to Brooklyn in 1972 to attend The Polytechnic Institute of New York. He graduated with a degree in meteorology and oceanography, but didn’t care enough to pursue it further. He remembers watching the camera pan away from Yankee Stadium during the 1977 World Series. The Bronx was burning. The next year McKinney joined the fire department.

“It was always something different, always something unusual. I loved it,” he says, breaking into a toothy grin. “I mean, you get to ride around on a big truck in the middle of the city making lots of noise, what’s not fun about that?”

There was the studious side of the job, as well. In order to keep himself and his squad mates safe, it became Tim’s responsibility to know everything there was to know about the structure of any given building. That little window above the stoop on a Brooklyn brownstone? That leads to a very small bedroom – usually a baby’s nursery. But be careful entering that way – it could be a structural weak point.

“That stuff is important,” McKinney says. “I worked as hard to get to lieutenant as I did to get a bachelors degree. There is a ton of information you got to know.”

Tim has already registered 1,793 hours of volunteer work (Alexander Abnos/ The Brooklyn Ink)

McKinney became captain of a ladder in lower Manhattan in the early 90’s. That’s when things began to get serious. It became his responsibility to call the families of firefighters lost in the line of duty. He attended funerals, sometimes picking out coffins for the deceased. McKinney buried the eighth of his colleagues in June of 2002. He retired that July.

McKinney’s normally affable face sinks when talking about those losses. His voice, already timid, quiets further. “It was a nightmare,” he states simply.

Retirement didn’t help. McKinney never had kids and never married, claiming he came close once “before she sobered up.” His family is still around, but lived a borough away, in Staten Island. For 30 years, every moment of his life revolved around the fire department. He did an intensely physical job, living in close quarters with others who did the same. There was always somewhere to go or something to do. All of that was gone now.

“I was like a fish out of water, flopping around, not really knowing what to do,” McKinney says. “It used to be ‘Hi, I’m Tim the firefighter.’ Then it was ‘Hi, I’m Tim….’ Tim the what?”

It took one and a half years for McKinney to discover the Prospect Park volunteer corp. The love was instantaneous. He was working outside again, serving the city, in close communication with all types of people. To date, McKinney has registered 1,793 hours of volunteer time, according to the Prospect Park Alliance.

Not all that time is spent emptying trash. Tim picks up dead branches, spreads mulch, and assists with the annual “It’s My Park” volunteer day, which brings hundreds of visitors to the park to contribute whatever help they can. The event is a monster to manage for Jessica Jamhoury, the director of the Prospect Park volunteer corps. Last year’s edition was her first on the job. It wasn’t long before she ran into a problem. Tools and equipment for the event are distributed around the park that day in a Ford F-350 pickup truck – a 20 foot long, 5,000 pound behemoth in and of itself. They fill it with equipment, and hitch a jam-packed cargo trailer to the rear.

“I had never driven anything that long before in my life,” Jamhoury says.

McKinney had. For 45 minutes the day before the event, McKinney used his firefighter’s experience to coach Jamhoury on how to safely operate such a large, unwieldy vehicle. He led her through parking drills. They practiced taking sharp corners. Jamhoury drove, McKinney rode shotgun. His voice never rose, and he never checked his watch.

“He was thinking about safety and doing the job right, and nothing else,” Jamhoury says. “He has a calm about him that’s really amazing; I’ve never seen him lose his cool.”

“Retirement sucks…but up here I found something that I like,” says Tim (Alexander Abnos/ The Brooklyn Ink)

McKinney arrived for volunteer duty on the West side of Prospect Park three years ago expecting a challenge. It was a cool Thursday afternoon at the start of spring. Flower planting time. He led his squad through the arduous task, describing it as a “total pain-in-the-ass job. You’re working on your knees, you’re digging holes. It’s really hard.”

One week later, the group re-convened. Someone had ransacked the flower bed. Holes were dug up, bulbs spread everywhere, the landscape completely destroyed.

“I said ‘OK, here’s where we start to boil over.’ I expected people to be complaining,” McKinney says. “Nobody said a word in that vein. They just got on with the work. They really taught me to stay positive, because you’re never going to get off that road once you start.”

“Sometimes you just got to factor in that things are gonna go bad.”

McKinney reaches the end of the forest pathway. He stops the wheelbarrow, filled with garbage, at the intersection of Prospect Park’s East Drive – a smooth, sunny artery that circles the park. This was the road McKinney ran years before. Back then, all McKinney chose to hear was the dull thud of his shoes on the pavement. All he saw was the road in front of him. Today, he leaves the wheelbarrow and crosses the road. There’s an opening in the trees and a thick wooden fence on the other side. McKinney leans forward on the fence, breathes deeply, and takes a long, lingering look across the park’s long meadow. Runners and cyclists zoom by behind him.

“Retirement sucks…but up here I found something that I like,” he says. “Now I can’t imagine there being anybody who doesn’t want to pick up garbage in the park.”


Do you help your community ? Have you ever done volunteer work in a Brooklyn park ? Can you think of parks that could do with some help? Let us know !

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