Patricia and Tom Parks stand in front a covered wagon they've built to help celebrate Oregon's 150th birthday. It's part of Patricia's latest window art display at the Rogue Valley YMCA, which will be installed next Saturday. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

50 square feet of Joy

Ittakes something special to slow the forward momentum of a mom doing the daycare drop-off in those frantic, too-few minutes on the way to work. But special is what Patricia Parks is all about.

At the entrance of Rogue Valley Family YMCA, in the slim space between the front door and lobby, Parks presents an ever-changing series of eye-catching displays that can stop even moms-on-a-mission in their tracks.

"My kids love it. They think it's fun. I like that they're kid friendly, that they can touch everything," says Jennifer Cook, as she escorts her son, Kyle, 6, inside.

At first, it may seem like a little thing — it's certainly a little space, not much more than 50 square feet. But 50 square feet of generosity and joy can make a surprising difference. Great gifts can come from small spaces and simple beginnings.

"No curb appeal," Patricia Parks said to herself when she first joined the Medford YMCA. The entrance was a small, dark square only a few strides long. One day she decided to do something about it.

"I wanted the Y to have a more welcoming entryway, one that would appeal to all eyes."

It started off as a modest, one-time thing; she decorated the narrow display area with gift boxes for the holidays.

"Well, I did one," she said. "Maybe one more ... ."

Five years later and Parks is still at it. Every six weeks, with an energy that belies her 63 years, she hauls props, climbs ladders and hangs backdrops to create elaborate dioramas. When she's not setting up one display, she's out scouring thrift shops and salvage yards for props for the next one.

"She's got a lot of nerve," says her husband, Tom Parks, 65. "She'll knock on somebody's door and ask 'Can I borrow that?' and they'll let her."

Over the years, Parks has begged, borrowed and crafted scarecrows and snowmen, bamboo and birdbaths, designer kites and Chinese lanterns. She's raffled off quilts, gift baskets and fancy bikes suspended from the ceiling.

YMCA members have been challenged to guess how many kernels of corn or how many fortune cookies, and they've been offered hundreds of tomato plants, free for the taking.

Parks' personal favorite? "My Bunny Valentine" — stuffed bunnies dining at cozy café tables for two.

YMCA member Terri Gibler appreciates the "entertaining and eye catching" quality of Parks' work. "She always has appropriate decorations for the seasons."

Seasonal themes are just the first layer in Parks' multi-layered concoctions — there's always more here than meets the eye. Colorful and visually appealing, her creations are designed to spark ideas and interactions. They also serve as a showcase for the values, activities and talents of the YMCA community.

A recent "Salute to Sunflowers" was vibrant with sunflower paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, but also with artwork by Y members who are artists themselves. The flower-filled vibrancy spilled out to the lobby with children's paintings of great big, glorious, kid-style sunflowers.

"If somebody is going to help, make sure they're from the YMCA," says artist and member Olin Jones. "I did a watercolor of a sunflower. In fact, I gave Pat the painting."

Brad Russell, executive director of the Rogue Valley Family YMCA, is thrilled with the first impression Parks' work creates. "When you step across the threshold, you say 'I belong here.' It's just a joy ... My favorite part is when she's making a new display. She's a friendly face at the front door."

Just in the time it takes Parks to spread some burlap and set up some boxes, conversations blossom, even with members who usually keep to themselves. "You always come up with the best stuff" is a frequent compliment.

The idea of people walking by while she set up her displays was intimidating at first. "Oh, gosh, I'm not sure I want people watching," she thought. Now, Parks thrives on the comments and conversations. "That's what's fun. The kids go by on their way to the playground. 'What are you doing?' They're hilarious."

This is a space that can make the hardest part of the day a little easier for parents bringing their children to daycare. After a hectic, hurried morning, this whimsical airlock between outside and inside gives them a place to pause and visit before their long, long day apart.

"Pat does a wonderful job. It's fun to see the new things," comments Michelle Delepine as she head inside with her 4-year-old daughter. "Kids love it."

For visitors of all ages, the changing displays are conversation starters. Parks' own mother, Georgina Burns, one of the YMCA's oldest members at 91, thrives on the interaction.

"It's one of those things that helps her get involved at the Y," explains her daughter. "She loves the little kids going by. It gives her an in to say something."

Georgina Burns agrees. "It's interesting to see who pays attention. That's what it's there for, to stir the imagination."

While her mother helps with painting, dying and cutting, Parks' husband, Tom, is the craftsman behind the constructions. As he describes it, "I'm the scut worker."

His wife's "huge amount of energy" propels them from project to project — taking over the garden shed at their Central Point home in the process — but Tom's carpentry skills make more complex displays possible.

Tom Parks' latest assignment is building an 8-foot by 6-foot covered wagon for a salute to Oregon's 150th anniversary.

Before the wagon rolls in, Parks starts with a teaser; suitcases, moving cartons and a small wooden box. A large sign poses the question, "What prized treasures would you take if they all had to fit into this small box?"

A former teacher, Parks knows how to start thoughtful conversations and build connections. She makes it a point to include books in her displays, encouraging the staff to borrow them to read to the children.

Even though she tries to operate on a zero budget, Parks donates her money as well as her time. It adds up; buying Chinese lanterns, printing signs, ordering an Oregon flag to hang over the doorway.

Her efforts are used as a tool by YMCA staffers to spur other programs at the Y.

"I use Pat as an example of an outstanding volunteer," says Director Brad Russell. "What she does, we try to replicate in our aquatic program, in our health and fitness program, in all our programs."

It may seem like a little thing — in the time it takes for one person to hold the door for another, a smile forms, a conversation starts. It's a little thing — until you do the math. With 4,000 regular members and 15,000 program participants, hundreds of people walk through the doors of the YMCA each day. Multiply that by a week, a month, a year. Smiles add up.

One person taking the time to add a grace note of beauty to the lives of others doesn't go unnoticed.

"I appreciate so much all the time and effort that goes in. She's willing to go to so much work just to give us all pleasure ... It lifts your spirits," says member Margie Jones.

It may seem like a little thing, but what if everyone took on 50 square feet of the world to give others joy and to help them talk with one another?

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