The most revitalizing thing I can do professionally is to visit with those who work in the field to see for myself how they serve the public. This past month, I had the opportunity to visit two top-tier agencies, the City of Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Parks and Recreation of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Prince George’s County, Maryland. What I saw blew me away.
The programs I visited were in totally dissimilar surroundings. The programs and parks I saw in Philly were in the heart of a densely urbanized city, and the Patuxent River Park in Prince George’s County, Maryland, was about as far off the pavement as you can get. But in both, I saw the same kind of dedication and commitment, and I can tell you, it was inspiring.
This kind of dedication to the mission of parks and recreation goes hand in hand with leadership. Mike DiBerardinis, the deputy mayor for environmental and community resources for the City of Philadelphia, has been committed to the cause of parks and recreation in Philadelphia for virtually his whole life. Perhaps his greatest love of parks is the social equity benefit that parks and recreation can bring to every community, wealthy or poor. He took great pride in showing us their neighborhood and community parks, both the attractive and the not-so-pretty. His honesty about the challenges they face is beyond refreshing.
At one of those parks, I met a remarkable recreation and community leader, Anthony Washington, who earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture, but returned home to “the neighborhood” so he could give back to his community. He wanted the kids in his neighborhood to have more obvious options than that of selling drugs.
The catalyst for his dream of resurrecting the park came from two incidents. First, Washington’s boyhood friend was shot near Nelson Playground, and second, he saw Nelson Playground on the TV show America’s Most Wanted, where the mutilated body of a young woman was found. He was tired of seeing his neighborhood turn to a festering pit of drug use and crime, and he decided that he would be responsible for reopening Nelson Playground. He wanted it to be a force for peace, education, youth sports and community unity. And thanks to his dedication, it is in the process of becoming that.
A few weeks later, at the invitation of NRPA board member Roslyn Johnson, deputy director of parks and recreation of the M-NCPPC in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, we held a field trip and staff retreat at Patuxent River Park. Under the great leadership of Ronnie Gathers, who heads the vast Department of Parks and Recreation in Prince George’s County, the staff spoke movingly of how their agency bears a special responsibility for environmental stewardship in their county. The M-NCPPC takes their mission of preserving and enhancing environmental quality for their citizens very seriously.
My experiences on both these visits showed me in clear, tangible ways how park and recreation staff can be innovative and creative with limited dollars. We have solutions for meeting some of the great challenges of our time — health, youth, the environment. Our passion, our love, our dedication — however you want to define it — inspires us to address these challenges on a daily basis and reminds us how lucky we are for it.
Barbara Tulipane, CAE,is NRPA's President and CEO.