Turning Lemons Into Lemonade

September 1, 2012, Department, by Danielle Taylor

 A lack of funding doesn't stop these Woonsocket, Rhode Island, kids from enjoying exciting programs in their parks. 

Municipality: City of Woonsocket, Rhode Island

Population: 41,186 (7.74 square miles)

Year Agency Founded: 1952

Annual Operating Budget: $171,000

Agency Head: Elizabeth Kerrigan, Recreation Director

Essential Information: 205 acres of parkland, nine parks, 11 baseball fields, eight playgrounds, several miles of walking trails and bike paths, one mini-golf course, one portable outdoor ice-skating rink, several basketball, volleyball, and tennis courts, and soccer and football fields.

Programs: Just Play!, Summer Music Series, Fitness in the Parks.

Rising to the Challenge: When Elizabeth Kerrigan, Woonsocket, Rhode Island’s new director of recreation, took the job in April 2012, she knew she had her hands full—or virtually empty. Although the department had once boasted a rich program schedule, major budget cuts left only enough funding to maintain existing parks and playing fields.

“I was told I could do whatever I wanted, as long as it cost the city nothing,” laughs Kerrigan. Fortunately, the agency already had plenty of equipment, and a local nonprofit provided six teenage employees at no cost to the city, allowing Kerrigan to launch Just Play! For this, the recreation department brought games and sports equipment to a different park each weekday throughout the summer, providing an interactive environment where parents and children could explore new activities.

Kerrigan also got in touch with local businesses to develop another program, Fitness in the Parks, which offered onetime introductory classes in the parks, including Zumba, yoga, kickboxing, and more. The concept allowed the parks to offer zero-cost fitness programs to the community and the fitness clubs to market their classes to potential new participants.

The Summer Music Series, the last new program for the summer, provided a different cultural experience in the parks, with bands playing different styles of music each weekend in August. Performances were either paid for by local businesses or provided to the city free of charge.

However, the ultimate success of the department’s fresh outlook depends on making personal connections as well as business ones. Woonsocket’s parks had recently experienced a graffiti problem, which Kerrigan decided to address head-on.

“After one Fitness in the Parks session, I had a big canister of water left over, so after everybody left, I walked across the park and invited [a group of teenagers] to come get some water before I left,” Kerrigan says. “I think that respect is going over well. They’re used to being kicked out. Since I started talking with them, it’s been two weeks since I’ve had to repaint the gazebo.”