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PlaceMaker: Community Advocate Michael Bennett Connects People to Presidio

Tuesday, Mar 14, 2017 Category Park Management

In 2014, Michael Bennett, then director of Physical Activity and Nutritional Wellness at the Bayview Hunters Point YMCA, partnered with the Presidio Trust, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and National Park Service to introduce residents of San Francisco’s District 10 to the park through the Presidio Community Shuttle Program.

Over the past three years, this monthly program has brought hundreds of Bayview residents to the Presidio to experience nature, enjoy the views, and get healthy by walking on park trails. To showcase this program and its participants, Michael created a shadowbox now on view daily at the new Presidio Visitor Center. As Michael moves on to his next chapter, we asked him to reflect on his time with the Presidio Community Shuttle Program.

When did you first come to the Presidio?
I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, but I was in the Army from 1977-1979 in Hawaii. I wasn’t ever stationed in the Presidio, but when I moved to the Bay Area, I could come here because I was a vet. I would go to the NCO (non-commissioned officer) Club in 1986-87 – it was one of the hotspots for me. And I would come out here to play basketball at the post gym before there was a Y here. Yes – I have lots of ties to the Presidio!

How did you start bringing people to the park?
I was working at the Bayview Y in District 10, which includes Visitacion Valley, Sunnydale, Bayview Hunters Point, and Potrero Hill. They asked me to help them put together a program to help people with health problems – things like post-traumatic stress, diabetes, and hypertension.

We used to walk up and down Third Street. But that wasn’t too good – we’d see all the negative stuff going on in the area. So, when the Presidio Community Shuttle Program opportunity came along, I thought, this is perfect! We can get people out of the neighborhood to where they can breathe and relax. We had folks with so much stress in their lives – especially in the Bayview where right now there’s pressure on folks because of displacement. They needed something different.

How do Community Shuttle program participants react when they visit the Presidio?
People love coming here – it feels like a fieldtrip to them. When people get on the bus, it turns into a social hour. Everyone has the chance to get away from their normal routines, and we provide lunch for them. Every month we never have a problem filling up the bus.

The main thing in the beginning was getting folks to understand how to participate together. When we first started coming here, we had people who wanted to walk ahead of everybody. I had to teach everyone to be inclusive and think about the people with disabilities. And it turned into a “find a partner and talk” thing. That changed everything. We’d walk the Golden Gate Bridge, and I’d take everyone to Crissy Field, then we’d go out to see the Palace of Fine Arts. Just to see people’s faces – they’ve lived in San Francisco sometimes all their lives and they’ve never been here before, and then they see it. That’s my favorite thing – the look on their faces.

What are you up to now?
In my next chapter of service to my community, I’m excited to be working as community engagement coordinator for the Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, the first state park in such an urban area.