Kathi Muller, director of strategic initiatives for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation (PPR), is a true park and rec kid. “I was a high school kid who shot baskets every day at the neighborhood playground,” she says, recalling her first experiences with parks and recreation. “One day, the recreation leader told me that I could go to college, study recreation and get a job as a recreation leader. I was inspired!” Thirty-eight years later, Muller has built a formidable career at PPR. She’s worked as an ice rink attendant, lifeguard, assistant recreation leader, full-time recreation leader, after-school coordinator and district manager, supervising 25 facilities, 14 pools and an ice-skating rink. Muller was assigned to Carousel House, PPR’s recreation center for people with disabilities. She recently worked on a team to facilitate the merger of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System with the Department of Recreation, and currently manages special projects and partnerships to advance PPR’s mission. Muller’s personal life, too, is happily suffused with the field — she’s a lifetime resident of the city, her husband of 34 years is a retired PPR employee and the couple’s three adult children all have careers in parks and recreation. “This was not intentional, but a result of [their] participating in a broad range of recreation programs and camps,” Muller explains. “They qualified for employment in camp and lifeguarding jobs through high school and college. They have discovered different paths that connect their personal interests to the broader field of parks and recreation.” We asked Muller to shed some light on her path in the field — below is a portion of our conversation.
Parks & Recreation magazine:What is one of the most rewarding aspects of your job?
Kathi Muller: It is truly rewarding when young adults come back and tell me that they are OK/successful as a result of participating in a program I ran. Many also worked for me as teens. You never know when you have the opportunity to make a difference in the life of a young person.
P&R:What is one of your greatest professional challenges?
Muller: I find partnerships particularly challenging. The complexity is managing external and internal partners who have a role in the relationship. As with any relationship, people have different interests and needs. We have a responsibility to figure out what each partner needs, then, we need to deliver on our commitments. You have to pay attention continuously to all aspects of the partnerships or you will not be successful. It is an art and a skill that one must continually model and teach.
P&R:What are you most proud of during your time with PPR?
Muller: In the mid-1990s I worked with then-Recreation Commissioner Michael DiBerardinis to address issues related to youth violence. An outgrowth of this work was the development of after-school programs in disadvantaged communities. The success leveraged support and resources to bring those programs to every neighborhood in Philadelphia. It was important work, connecting with citizens in diverse neighborhoods to understand and find solutions to keep children and teens safe. By addressing a societal issue, we were able to provide expanded recreation services that still exist today.
P&R:What advice would you give to a young professional in the field?
Muller: Be open to new ideas. Never forget where you came from. Respect the community you serve. No task or role is beneath you. Join professional organizations — the friends, support and knowledge will sustain and advance your career.
— Samantha Bartram, Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine