After 10 Years, Parks Fundraiser Group Changing Leaders
A community leader who for 10 years has lead the charge to revitalize parks in West University Place will step down from her position within the next few months, handing the reigns to another woman whom friends describe as a passionate parks supporter.
Joni Hruska Fichter has been the face of the Friends of West University Place Parks Fund, a nonprofit that has gathered nearly $4 million in donations over the decade for park renovations and most recently, helped fund the new West U. Recreation Center. In June, Fichter will step down as chair of the group and longtime volunteer Leah Ragiel will take her place.
“One of my goals before I did that was to make sure we were in tip-top shape … I feel really secure in handing over a great board,” Fichter said. “It’s been a long time and I feel like we’ve accomplished so much. It’s been wonderful, and a truly good experience.”
Fichter said with two teenagers with hectic schedules, the oldest preparing to enter college, she plans to spend more time with her family and other endeavors. However, she will remain as chair through the opening of the West U. Recreation Center and Colonial Park pool. She also will remain on the Friends advisory board.
“We were lucky to have her for that long,” said Friends Executive Director Donna LaMond, who said Fichter has become one of her closest friends.
LaMond describes Fichter as an inspirational leader who trusted others to do good jobs without micromanaging, and was skilled at keeping board members focused on important goals. She said those who work with Fichter develop a deep level of respect for her.
“It’s been a wonderful camaraderie, and there’s no words to adequately convey what she’s done,” LaMond said. “She eats, sleeps, breathes West University parks.”
Parks and Recreations Director Tim O’Connor said he was “kind of freaked a little bit” when he learned Fichter was stepping down, but he took “consolation” in knowing she would still volunteer on the advisory board and be available to answer questions when Friends volunteers need help.
“I was definitely more than a little nervous and scared until I found out her successor would be Leah Ragiel,” O’Connor said. “Joni’s successor is going to be someone I think very highly of, who doesn’t lightly take on commitments.”
Ragiel, a stay-at-home mother of two children, has been committed to being an active Friends volunteer for the past 10 years. She has served on important subcommittees of the Friends, including chairing the Park Lovers Ball, the group’s major fundraiser. She helped organize the first Fathers and Flashlights event an also founded the West U. Friends and Neighbors Guild. Her 10-years’ volunteer experience has prepared her to take over the chair position, she said.
“I think it’s a personal challenge. It’s an opportunity to do a good job and have the satisfaction of having done good for the community,” Ragiel said. “I know there are some new directions we can take out there, and I look forward to figuring out what they are with this new group of people.”
Some new ideas that Ragiel said she’s interesting in pursuing include the creation of a community garden, the development of a new park in one quadrant of West U. without a park in walking distance, and coming up with new ideas for fundraising events. Ragiel said she understands it will be a challenge to juggle the time commitments of being the Friends chair. But all the board members contribute so much time and energy, she said.
“I won’t be alone,” Ragiel said. “I invite anybody, no matter how new they are to the community, to please contact us and get involved because we welcome new ideas, new people, and we need all the support we can get.”