In her role as Shreveport Public Assembly Recreation (SPAR) manager at Valencia Park in Shreveport, Louisiana, Shalon Lewis has a lot on her plate. She makes sure youth and seniors in her community have access to a top-notch facility packed with fun and interesting programming. She wrangles volunteers — including her own mother — to work at the park’s impressive community garden, which yields piles of veggies during Louisiana’s long growing season. During the past nine years at Valencia, Lewis makes a daily effort to share her pride and infectious energy with the larger community, trumpeting her facility’s amenities to anyone willing to listen. We recently caught up with the 34-year-old to get a more detailed sense of her deep commitment to the park and recreation profession.
Parks & Recreation Magazine: Tell us about some of the programmatic highlights at Valencia Park.
Shalon Lewis: Hosting successful job fairs; creating a Referral Center for patrons to come and receive useful information; conducting the largest after-school program in SPAR where we pride ourselves on education, teambuilding and respect for self and others; providing senior citizens a place to come daily and relax, learn and participate in fun activities such as arts and crafts and table games (a favorite of our “Senior Valencia Golden Girls and Boys” is Mexican Train Dominoes); health and wellness seminars; and field trips. We also award the youth in the neighborhood with summer jobs in our community youth garden — the first of its kind in northern Louisiana.
P&R: Valencia Park’s youth community garden is clearly a highlight and point of pride for the park — talk a bit about how that program works and how the community is involved.
Lewis: The garden is a wonderful partnership between the LSU AgCenter and the City of Shreveport. We teamed up with Dr. Grace Peterson from the LSU AgCenter to do a nutrition program in 2008. Six years later, we now have a year-round garden, berry bushes (10), a fruit orchard (12 trees), a herb garden and a flower bed. The youth are the main ones who are involved [in the maintenance of the garden]. They learn responsibility, ownership, teamwork, how to eat healthier and to have pride for themselves and their community.
P&R: What sort of fruits and veggies do you grow in the garden, and which are your favorite?
Lewis: Our garden is year-round, so we grow a variety of fruits and vegetables that thrive in Louisiana’s warm climate — figs, watermelon, tomato, spinach, okra, lettuce, kale, broccoli, pepper, pumpkin, sweet potatoes and eggplants, just to name a handful. My favorites are everything we grow, but if I had to pick a few it would be the broccoli, sweet potatoes and cucumbers, and I love to see the sunflowers bloom.
P&R: We understand you’re great with volunteers, even enlisting your mom to help out in the garden. How did you convince her to become involved?
Lewis: I have a saying at Valencia: Once you come to visit, you will want to come back. The volunteers are great! They come and help because they want to be there; they love to see the smiles on the kids’ faces, and the fact that they love gardening plays a big role too. My mother Belinda (Coley) Lewis is the biggest supporter of the garden — day in and day out, she is there. For Mother’s Day this year, she didn’t want to go out to eat or anything like that — she wanted all her kids (eight of us and many grandkids) to meet at the garden to work, so we did. I think she was happier about starting a garden than I was. Growing up, she would always say, “I want a house with a big backyard so I can start a garden.” Well, she has her garden now and I am proud to know I was able to give her that.
P&R: What’s the most rewarding aspect of your job at Valencia Park?
Lewis: Giving back to the community, especially the youth.
P&R: What advice would you give to other park and recreation professionals?
Lewis: We can and we are making a difference in the lives of others. Thank and appreciate your staff and volunteers. You are only as good as the people who work with you.
Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation Magazine.