For many people, Lake Highlands North Park is a place to play outdoor sports or let kids burn off excess energy.

But for George Thurman, a long-time neighborhood resident and recent retiree, the park is a precious slice of nature that reminds him of the rural areas of his childhood. It also is a peaceful backdrop for his three-mile daily walk.

When Thurman changed his walking route early last year, he was shocked to see how unkempt the park was. Litter thrown down during soccer games and other activities had blown into the bushes, pond and creek, and a vandal had even tossed the park’s trash barrels into the pond.

“People had thrown all kinds of trash into the pond, like baby diapers, bicycles, Christmas trees and everything else,” Thurman recalls.

“So one day I just started taking a stick and pulling out some of the trash. Then, pretty soon, I found that I was moving up the stream and cleaning it, too.”

What started as a casual attempt to remove some of the most accessible debris soon grew into a full-fledged, one-man restoration campaign. Thurman not only pulled all the trash and dead limbs out of the pond and creek, but he continues to pick up litter on a daily basis. He also trims underbrush so that the park’s nature trails are more inviting.

He puts out food for the ducks and keeps an eye on other wildlife such as squirrels, raccoons, opossums and – on one occasion – a beaver.

After the green areas were looking better, Thurman broadened his clean-up campaign to include the parking lot of the Lake Highlands North Recreation Center, where he gathers carelessly discarded litter and puts it in nearby trash barrels.

Soon, nearly everyone working at the recreation center had noticed the improvements wrought by “George, the man who cleans the park,” recalls program specialist Mollie Crocker.

They were so appreciative of his efforts that they honored him with a City of Dallas Lake Highlands North Seniors Active in Life volunteer award in August.

“With all his energy and time, George went out and gave the park special care as if it was his own backyard,” Crocker says. “He’s turned it into a lovely little nature area.”

Charlie Bussey, program supervisor of the park and recreation center, says the turnaround in the condition of the pond is just short of miraculous.

“Our pond was such an eyesore that people were talking about doing away with it,” Bussey says. “It got clogged up with brush, and sometimes it even dried up and had a bad odor. But since George has been volunteering, it has become an actual living pond instead of a stagnant swamp. The ducks have returned, too.”

Thurman, 69, says he feels he has found his niche in community service. He is combining several activities that he loves while getting both exercise and relaxation.

“I enjoy nature,” Thurman says. “Every tree means something to me, and so do the animals.

“I like to see the changing of the seasons and the way life in the park is constantly changing. I can just sit among the trees sometimes and be perfectly content.”