Every year in January, our country is united in celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. As a fighter for justice, a pillar of courage, a leader of freedom and a voice for love, King inspired a movement. The great Civil Rights leader once said, “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” Every year in January, we are tasked with responding to this question and answering this call to action: what are we doing for others?
When I think about this call to action and the many contributions King made, I can’t help but feel inspired by the industry that I am so proudly a part of. Park and recreation professionals demonstrate many of the same values that King acclaimed, from selflessness to servitude. I think about the people of parks and recreation and their work to serve their communities each day. I think about our efforts to improve the health, environmental and socio-economic outcomes for our most vulnerable community members. I think about the compassion, the drive, the trustworthiness and the dedication to their communities that park and recreation professionals exhibit. I think about our shared dream for healthier, stronger, and more just and fair communities where every single person can thrive — and where everyone has access to a great park.
Mentoring as an act of service
In their acts of service, park and recreation professionals play many roles in a community, most notably as mentors both in their professional and their personal lives. They are leaders, teachers, coaches, mentors and friends. They go above and beyond to connect community members to needed services and programs that enhance quality of life. And most serve as the role models and caring adults that youth can turn to when they need support, both on and off the clock.
“Mentoring is an essential tool for pathfinding. Mentors can accelerate the self-discovery process far beyond what an individual alone can achieve in the same time, and occasionally, just once in a while, entirely change the trajectory of a person’s life,” said Ian Proud, member of the NRPA Board of Directors.
For Ian Proud, his mentoring work spans all age groups. From coaching youth soccer to mentoring high school students about potential careers to advising mid-career and late-career professionals feeling unfulfilled. “Why do I do it,” Proud asked. “[To see] the look on someone’s face when they realize what they are capable of.”
“Mentoring is the role-modeling that complements academic and experiential learning. All the classroom time in the world cannot replace the impact that a good mentor will have on influencing the behavior of a protégé who wants to develop the management and leadership skills of a successful park director or manager,” said Jack Kardys, chair of the NRPA Board of Directors.
Kardys volunteers as a mentor and instructor in the Florida Recreation and Park Association’s Abraham's Leadership Academy that provides guidance for emerging park and recreation professionals throughout Florida. He also provides leadership and management advice to those working throughout the Miami-Dade Parks Department. Sharing information helps mentees save time by building on institutional knowledge rather than starting from “scratch,” he said. “Likewise, I learn more from my proteges through their ‘mentoring up’ so that I remain open-minded to new ideas and technology.”
Starting a ripple effect in parks and rec through mentoring
Serving as a mentor can also affect individual’s lives in unexpected ways. Proud recently heard from one student who took an Industrial Design class he was teaching 7 years ago. Proud advised this individual to take charge and set the direction he wanted his life to go. This influenced the mentee’s life as he worked to figure out a direction to take. This mentee said, “I hope this message shines light on how important it is to reach out to others in need and how the smallest gesture can have a lasting impact on people’s lives.”
The guidance provided can also provide new opportunities for the next generation of park professionals. “I am a mentor to Jairo Rios-Campos, the Recreation Program Manager for PlayEast!,” said Mike Abbaté, member of the NRPA Board of Directors. “I encouraged him to apply for his present position when it came open a year ago or so. I have been meeting with Jairo ever since, helping him to learn how to navigate the political and administrative waters of working for two municipalities.” Rios-Campo, in turn, serves as a mentor for middle school and high school youth, has become a member of NRPA and has been working to increase the number of Latinx professionals in the field.
“I love mentoring younger professionals with career advice. It makes me feel like I’m paying forward all the mentoring I have received along the way,” said Kristine Stratton, NRPA president and CEO. “I also love helping people find their way to what is going to make them happy.”
Celebrate the day of service by making your own commitment
When I reflect on the many ways in which park and recreation professionals serve their communities, the examples are endless. Not many institutions can claim to build, reach and serve communities in all the ways that parks and recreation can. And while our individual acts of community service may look different, we are bound by our shared power to improve quality of life, and our shared hope that someday, as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, the color of your skin, the neighborhood you live in, and the money in your bank account will not determine how long you live or the quality of your life.
This year, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday on January 20, 2020, marks the 25th anniversary of the day of service, observed as “a day on, not a day off.” On this day — and all days in our profession — let’s remember the many things we do to serve our communities, and let’s strive to do even more to make King’s dream, and our dream, a reality.
What is your park and recreation agency doing on January 20?
Allison Colman (she/hers) is NRPA’s Director of Health.