Before social media sites ever existed, people often gathered in public parks to socialize and get to know others. It was a way to get out of the house and make acquaintances with others who shared common interests. At Lake Baldwin Park, an abundance of social activity can be seen all around the wooded park and playground.
It’s a park full of immense trees, a deep blue lake, chewed up tennis balls, and dog owners running into the lake after their splash-happy dogs. Off of Lakemont Avenue, just north of Baldwin Park, at Lake Baldwin Park dogs roam off of their leashes, kids run and play freely, young people socialize and people of all ages form friendships on a daily basis from sunrise to sunset.
“It’s the original social network, a park is,” said Carla Lubet, treasurer of the non-profit organization Friends of Lake Baldwin Park.
All of this and more is only in existence in part due to the hard work of Friends of Lake Baldwin Park.
According to the organization’s website, this 23-acre site was purchased from the Catholic Diocese by the city of Winter Park in 1975. Around that time, FOLBP leaders recall the area as a place where drug deals went down regularly, but over time that has changed with the help of the area’s furry four-legged friends and their hind-leg walking companions.
“People would bring their dogs over here, and it seemed to help chase out the bad element, and the city liked that, and the cops liked that. So they were asked to organize a non-profit to help promote the park for dogs, and so the organization was formed,” Lubet said.
Since the organization was founded, many improvements have been made to the park, ranging from dog waste stations to a new playground for children, which was built in one day with the help of 150 volunteers and the non-profit organization KaBoom!
In recent years the organization has helped install an information kiosk, mini library book exchange and water fountains for both dogs and people. In 2006, Dog Fancy Magazine honored Lake Baldwin Park as one of the top-10 best dog parks in the USA.
According to the Winter Park Parks & Recreation Department’s 2013 annual report, FOLBP donated $45,000 to help build a new restroom that is ADA-compliant with two dog wash stations in the back. After many dogs jump into the lake or run along with their new friends, their owners take them to these dog stations and wash them before they hop in their cars to head home.
This park was not originally intended for dogs, but over time, dogs and their owners have helped turn the park into what it is today. Sally Simmons, FOLBP’s committee team coordinator, said that the Lake Baldwin Park community is now one that many families and dog-owners desire to live around. This includes Baldwin Park, which shares a lakefront with the park.
Simmons said people from across the state come to the area just to let their dogs splash around in Lake Baldwin. She said she’s met people from Daytona Beach, Kissimmee and Melbourne all in town just to pay Lake Baldwin Park a visit.
Lubet said that thanks to social media, many people have found the dog park online and contact the organization through their Facebook page.
Very often, she said, people email and Facebook message them that they would like to come and help volunteer in the park. FOLBP organizes groups to help clean up the park by clearing debris, doing stool sweeps and cleaning seaweed off of shorelines. The summer season is when most of these volunteer groups come together to help the park. Lubet said that there is always something for volunteers to help out with in the park and that help is useful no matter how small.
“There are an abundance of people who know each other merely because of this dog park, and we never want to lose that,” Lubet said with a smile.
“It’s not just a dog park; it’s a dog-friendly people park,” said David McCallum, a daily attendee who comes to fix minor repairs in the park, as well as carve the art seen on the park’s trees.
McCallum learned how to swim on Lake Baldwin as a child and now attends the park on a daily basis. He said that the dogs interacting with each other forces people to interact with each other and is what brings it all together. He said that in Central Florida, many people, like him, come here as a social outlet.
“It’s a nice community. I’ve met a lot of good friends here,” said Judy Rickles, a regular attendee, laughingly pointing at those around her.
Once a month, Rickles goes out to lunch with a group of friends that all met over the years through this park. Many other social groups have also been made because of friendships that have started through attendees bringing their dogs to play. Every Saturday, a group of seniors come to sit under a big tree, converse and observe the park. There are also many dog play-date groups, which are regularly seen meeting up at the on the shores of Lake Baldwin.
“People really get the time to know each other and talk to each other unlike any other park I’ve gone to,” Lubet said.
Plans to continue improving the park are always in the works, Lubet said. The organization is looking forward to selling memorial bricks for pets that have passed away and making a memorial garden for them as well as building another dock.
“The great thing about this park now is because we have the children’s playground … This is a more multi-functional park now. It’s not just a dog park. It’s a park that allows dogs off leash as well as picnic areas for people that don’t want to be in the mix of the dogs and for children to play,” Lubet said motioning toward her surroundings. “It’s a really well-rounded park now and one of the best in Winter Park or in the area.”