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Retiree Danny Patnode Finds Purpose in a Park

Lush childhood play space helps him stay sober

Video: Restoring a Historic Park Helped This Man Get Sober

When I was a kid in the 1960s, my family lived just a couple of blocks away from McKinley Park in Tacoma, Washington. My brothers used to take me there, and I was just amazed at the beauty of it. It’s 22 acres of nature south of downtown, with streams, trails and a reflecting pond. We’d go sledding there in the winter and slide down hills on cardboard in the summer.

But then my parents divorced, and we moved to a different part of town. I graduated from high school and got odd jobs, then worked in the beer industry. And as soon as I could, I bought my own place, back near McKinley Park. But I had a problem with alcohol. I’ve fought it my whole life. For many years I was sober, but over seven years in my late 40s, I lost almost everything, including the gal and the job. The park was going downhill, too — overgrown and dirty.

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A cancer diagnosis and sobriety

And then in 2010, doctors told me I had prostate cancer. They said to try to quit drinking. After my cancer surgery, I knew I had to do something to keep myself occupied so I wouldn’t drink. I was just barely hanging on.

One day, I grabbed a bucket, went outside and started picking up garbage on the street. I ran into my neighbor Larry, who asked, “Why don’t you help me in the park?”

So I started volunteering with Larry, who was working to beautify McKinley Park. The work gave me purpose and relieved my depression. Between that and a 12-step program, I’ve been able to stay sober, and my prostate cancer hasn’t come back. I volunteered with Larry until he became ill and passed away. Now I continue what he started.

When I began at the park, I used to count the used hypodermic needles I was picking up. After I had collected over 5,000 needles, I stopped counting. There are a lot fewer of them now, though. The homeless encampments that used to be all over the park are gone. Whenever I meet someone homeless at the park, I try to find services for them, a place where they can go. I never talk down to them, because I’ve been there.

Since I retired in 2013, I’ve put 1,200 hours a year into the park. People say I saved the park, but the way I look at it, the park saved me. To me, it’s a magical place. I never knew that taking care of the park would change my life, but it did — one day at a time. 

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