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Nurturing All Things Natural: Shellye Arnold and Tina Sabuco are Dedicated to Each Other, Bears, and Their Community

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By Kim Hogstrom

Shellye Arnold and Tina Sabuco met at the University of Texas in Austin while they were both attending college. When Arnold chose to pursue a master’s degree in urban affairs at Princeton University, Sabuco moved to New Jersey with her. That was 28 years ago, and the two have remained together since the very first day.

Arnold and Sabuco’s relationship is one of those that seems to be handcrafted in heaven, with personalities that fit together like puzzle pieces to create gracious, effortless harmony. They retain distinct preferences and attributes, but they share many values—including a dedication to, and a love for, nature.

The couple’s home in Garden Oaks is landscaped with sustainable native plants that thrive year-round. Their flowers seem to bloom constantly, much to the delight of local residents and children. However, it’s the couple’s topiary bears that have earned them a full-on fan club.

The two five-foot bears are displayed prominently in Arnold and Sabuco’s front yard, and spend much of the year adorned in costumes: Halloween getups in October; glittering green, gold, and purple ribbons and masks for Mardi Gras; crossing-guard uniforms to mark the beginning of each school year; and so forth.

The day Sabuco surprised Arnold with the bushy bears as a gift to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary, the bears were dressed in matching wedding gowns.

“Yes, the bears are girls,” Sabuco says with a laugh. “And they have names: Merry and Marry.” Apparently, Arnold and Sabuco also share a rare sense of humor.

Arts Alive!

Similarly, both women are professionals who run nonprofit agencies. Tina Sabuco is the founder and director of Arts Alive!, an organization dedicated to helping young children nurture the creative expression residing naturally in their spirits, through the use of movement, music, dance, and drama.

“The curriculum at Arts Alive! is founded on the concept of engaging a child with the application of 50 thematic lesson plans,” Sabuco explains. “We utilize themes such as ‘Butterfly Bonanza,’ or ‘Growing a Garden.’ In ‘Garden,’ the children start as seeds and bloom, bloom, bloom into dancing flowers, fruit, and vegetables. Each theme engages a child’s imagination, which enables the child to retain the lesson. We call this ‘education through imagination.'”

The programs have been received very well by the public, and Arts Alive! representatives can be found working in 40 schools throughout Houston.

Memorial Park Conservancy

Since 2013, Shellye Arnold has held the position of president and CEO for the Memorial Park Conservancy, a private nonprofit agency dedicated to Memorial Park’s restoration, enhancement, and preservation. It’s a big job, but Arnold is the perfect choice. She plays a starring role in creating a trajectory for the asset’s future.

“Memorial Park is a unique urban element. At 1,500 acres, it’s one of the largest urban parks in the U.S.—almost twice the size of New York’s Central Park. About four million Houstonians visit each year, from 170 zip codes! There it sits, in the middle of Houston, available to all,” Arnold says.

“The park’s land and waterways also support 85 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, and another 160 species of birds. Memorial Park is a unequaled urban natural asset,” Arnold says. “There is nothing quite like it.”

History

In 1917, the land on which Memorial Park sits hosted Camp Logan, a military training base for troops destined to fight in World War I. Following the war, Will Hogg, Mike Hogg, and Henry Stude bought much of Camp Logan’s land and sold it to the City of Houston at cost. It was named Memorial Park and dedicated to the soldiers who lost their lives in the war. 

The park clipped along for years, providing a beautiful green space for people from all walks of life. Then, in 2011, a devastating drought damaged more than half of the trees. Coupled with the fact that many trees were over 70 years old and aging to begin with, the drought took a heavy toll on the health of the forest.

“It was a challenge—there were parts of the park where 95 percent of the tree canopy died. In some places, we were down to dirt,” Arnold says.

There were several other factors that put Memorial Park at risk. Its natural habitat has suffered from the invasion of non-native species often used in landscaping in Houston. These shrubs and trees fiercely compete with native species. The non-natives have fewer insect predators, grow more densely, and block the sunlight that would normally reach the earth.

Another factor contributing to the park’s death spiral was a severe lack of care. Typically, U.S. cities spend about $6,000 an acre each year maintaining an urban park. Houston had been spending an average of $400.

While most of the parks in Houston have enjoyed modern renovations and updates, Memorial Park had been overlooked for decades—until recently.

The Future

“Following the drought, we knew we had to step up, so we began developing a long-term plan,” says Joe Turner, the director of Houston Parks and Recreation Department, in a prior press release. “The drought was the driving force behind the new Memorial Park Master Plan.”

In 2013, the Memorial Park Conservancy entered into a partnership with the Houston Parks and Recreation Department and the city of Houston itself. The park was also annexed into the Uptown Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, or Uptown TIRZ, to create a funding stream.

This marked the start of a grueling process to create a master plan. Finally, in late 2015, after extensive consultation with the nationally recognized landscape-architecture firm Nelson Boyd Woltz, and multiple public-comment meetings, the official Memorial Park Master Plan was presented to Houston City Council. It passed unanimously in a rare show of solidarity.

What can we look forward to in the future? Plenty. Among its many improvements, there will be an 800-foot-long land bridge built over Memorial Drive to connect the park’s north and south sides. How cool is that?

Other developments will include adding 30 miles of trails for hiking, biking, running, and equestrians, plus rebuilding ball fields, picnic spots, and rest areas. Roads will be moved and added, allowing access to currently unreachable areas of the park. Ecologies will be replanted to foster resiliency and improve habitats for native flora, and interesting educational elements will be added to celebrate Memorial Park’s history.

All of this falls under Shellye Arnold’s charge. In essence, she and her crew are breathing life back into the old girl, restoring and preserving the sprawling park now and for generations to come. 

“Memorial Park is a place to nurture your soul by connecting with nature, to nurture your body through exercise or relaxation, and to nurture your relationships by spending time with those you love. Memorial Park is a treasure,” Arnold says.

Relaxing?

What do Arnold and Sabuco do to slow down on those rare weekends when they get a chance? They spend time among the trees at their breathtaking retreat nestled in the heart of the Texas Hill Country.

Does that really surprise anyone?

For more information about Memorial Park, to volunteer, or to become an official Memorial Park member, go to memorialparkconservancy.org.

Kim Hogstrom is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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