Not long ago, I was visiting a recreation center in an underserved community when what was supposed to be a routine visit turned into a life-changing event for me. We talk about our Social Equity Pillar with great sincerity, but the truth is, we are somewhat removed from the realities of it. This changed for me when, as we were leaving the center, a young man — a boy, really — stumbled into the center looking for help. We rushed to help him and while a staff member called for an ambulance, we learned that he had been stabbed at his home during an altercation with an intruder. We later learned that his injuries were not life-threatening, and while he will not suffer long-term physical damage, I can’t speak to the mental trauma he suffered. I suspect, however, that it will affect him long after his physical wounds are healed.
I have vivid memories and reflections from this event, but perhaps the most touching memory was watching teenage boys switch from being hip young men playing foosball just seconds before to being sensitive young men comforting a scared little boy. I was also struck by the fact that of all the places this young boy could have gone, he came to the center as a place of safety and a place where he could get help.
We frequently talk about how “parks build community” but to witness “community” in action was truly remarkable. I was also in awe of the center’s young manager who took charge and brought order out of chaos. Her poise and skills under pressure speak volumes to the professionalism and dedication that park and recreation staff have and which they display every day.
In my role, I have had the privilege of seeing some spectacular park and recreation centers and, without exception, park directors have always been generous in sharing their knowledge with me. While I enjoy these visits and enjoy seeing beautiful parks, it’s the centers in underserved communities where I learn the most. Perhaps it’s because these centers are so important, even essential, to the people who live in these communities. I remain grateful to the director who had the courage to show me a center that was not her best or newest facility but, rather, a center that provides its residents with a refuge from the conflicts plaguing many communities today.
Some weeks later, when I shared my experience with the NRPA Board of Directors, a board member, who runs a very large urban agency, made a startling comment. He said that in his city, the police are armed “to the teeth” when they go into communities with high-crime rates, yet his employees who work in these same communities carry nothing more than a whistle!
It’s frustrating to see and difficult to understand how park and recreation professionals, who provide services that go way beyond just recreation programs, fail to receive acknowledgement or pay that is equivalent to public safety personnel. There are no parades for the park and recreation professionals, and there are no public awards. Park and recreation professionals simply do it for the love of kids who are surviving under conditions that very few of us will ever know.
Barbara Tulipane, CAE is NRPA's President and CEO