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How a global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement compelled the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks to mobilize and take action
When Roslyn Johnson joined the Baltimore County (Maryland) Department of Recreation and Parks (BCRP) as its new director in February 2020, little did she know the challenges that lay ahead for her and her staff — the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, an economic recession and a racial reckoning.
“It’s hard to believe, but it was about a week before our first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Baltimore County that Director Johnson was unanimously confirmed as the first-ever woman to lead the department,” says Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski. He adds that Johnson really “got thrown right into the fire as she was taking over….”
Johnson recalls that during the early days of the pandemic, “the staff was getting to know me; I was getting to know them — but communication was the key. We kept in close contact with our staff at all times.”
As the third-largest county in the state and spanning 682 square miles, Baltimore County is home to more than 828,000 residents across 29 unincorporated cities and communities. Its population comprises 63 percent – Non-Hispanic White, 26 percent – Black, 0.33 percent – Native American, 5 percent – Asian, 0.04 percent – Pacific Islander and 4.2 percent – Hispanic, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Maryland recorded three confirmed COVID-19 cases on March 5 — alarming news that reverberated throughout state and local government agencies. By March 17, about 175 of the recreation and parks department’s 183 full-time and part-time office and Police Athletic League (PAL) center staff began either teleworking from home or went on administrative leave, while others like nature center employees and park rangers continued working at their respective sites. Johnson explains that her department also includes an additional 900 seasonal and recreation program leaders, who ceased working at the time due to the pandemic but were paid sick and safe leave for up to 64 hours.
Although parks, trails and nature centers stayed open, BCRP staff were concerned about the basketball courts and tennis courts as well. And, this posed a challenge that relates directly to social equity, Johnson says. She adds that basketball presents very different problems than tennis. “If you put a basketball rim up, you’re going to have 10 people crowded around a hoop to play, and they’re not going to be socially distanced,” she says. However, tennis allows for single players who could easily physically distance, yet it fails to promote equity.
Johnson explains that, traditionally, each sport attracts two very different socioeconomic user groups. “So, we took down the tennis nets and we took down the basketball hoops at the same time,” she says. BCRP buildings (PAL centers and recreation facilities), portable toilets/restrooms, playgrounds, stages and water fountains also were closed to the public.
On March 30, Maryland reported 1,413 confirmed cases and 15 deaths, prompting Governor Larry Hogan to issue a statewide stay-at-home order to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Pivoting to Provide Essential Services
The pandemic and subsequent closures caused much anxiety for those in underserved communities, especially for those dependent on essential services like food assistance programs.
“Prior to COVID, we only [offered] the meal program for those registered for our PAL summer program; they received meals and a snack,” Johnson explains. Once schools shut down, she says Baltimore County wasn’t certain that food distribution would continue for youth. Thus, the county executive formed a food distribution task force. Kara Burman, a regional coordinator at BCRP, has served as department lead for the task force and contacted partners, like the Maryland Food Bank and KidzTable, to participate in the food programs.
Initially, the staff served grab-and-go meals Monday through Friday, whereby people could pick up two meals daily at designated facilities throughout the county. With assistance from the National Guard, BCRP was able to scale back the schedule to three days per week without having to decrease the number of meals distributed. On Saturdays, staff worked at drive-thru sites supplying 30-pound nonperishable food boxes and boxes containing fresh produce and a loaf of bread to families.
According to Burman, the county has served 4,609,745 total meals since March 16, with BCRP staff serving 76,210 meals during weekdays since March 23 and 1,059,095 meals during Saturday distribution. BCRP meals are totaling slightly less than one-quarter of the total number of meals for the entire county.
Michael Palmere, PAL coordinator at Dundalk PAL Center, runs the largest food distribution site in one of the most diverse communities in Baltimore County. “I think the area down here has been affected with people being laid off…and we’ve been addressing an issue that may have been there slightly prior to [COVID-19], but it’s definitely been magnified during the pandemic,” he says. “I know our grab-and-go meals, at least through June, just kept growing and growing. It seemed like we were doing 2,500 to 3,000 grab-and-go meals a week just at the Dundalk site.”
In addition to providing food assistance, recreation and park staff further expanded their roles to assist other county agencies. As an example, during Baltimore’s special election for the U.S. House of Representatives seat formerly held by the late Elijah Cummings and Maryland’s primary election, BCRP staff worked at polling sites. The staff also opened facilities to host Red Cross blood drives and even received training to work the eviction prevention and child safety hotlines.
Fun and Healthy Alternatives
Throughout this pandemic, Baltimore health officials emphasized the fact that people need to get outside in the fresh air and exercise to maintain overall physical and mental health. Thus, county parks and trails remained open as long as people avoided large gatherings and followed health guidelines. In fact, the BCRP team has noticed an uptick in park visits. Cromwell Valley Park, for instance, saw a dramatic increase in the number of park visitors.
Kris Mervine, regional coordinator for BCRP’s nature, agriculture and environmental centers, adds, “[T]he nature venues…never really closed because the standalone nature centers…have large numbers of people visiting the sites for hiking and just to get outdoors.”
When it comes to taking the proper safety precautions in parks and open spaces, Mervine contends that most people are doing the right things and physical distancing. “We added a lot of signage [and] social distancing ambassadors who were helpful…,” he says.
Although nature venues stayed open, BCRP staff had to develop alternatives to in-person summer programing. Jessica Jeannetta, a community supervisor at Oregon Ridge Nature Center, and her team created remote nature discovery boxes for parents and children to take home. “The idea was just to have five to eight self-led activities that families could do with their children either here at the park or at home in their backyard that would get them outside exploring and experiencing nature first-hand,” Jeannetta explains.
Maria Bieneman, a regional coordinator, also considered how to supplement traditional recreational programming when she created the Recreation Grab-and-Go program that offered families a bag of activities and relied on corporate donations. “One of our donations was with the Baltimore Ravens, and they put together a Flock Fitness Challenge for the Under Armour MapMyFitness app,” she says. The team also donated posters for the bags. Bieneman adds that these activity bags are not just meant to keep kids busy, but they are a way to “bring us together during a pandemic.”
Summer and Fall Reimagined
Johnson says she and her team didn’t know if this year’s summer camps would be canceled altogether due to COVID-19. “Originally, the governor said no more than 15 people in an entire building, and then that changed to no more than 15 people per room and that includes the instructors and staff,” she says, “and as long as they could still socially distance and be six feet apart.”
On July 6, BCRP finally kicked off summer camp. While COVID-19 undoubtedly affected traditional summer camp, Wade Henninger, PAL coordinator at Mars Estates PAL Center, says there have been some positives. Because BCRP can only allow a limited number of people, “the kids are receiving quality one-on-one instruction. We can really spend our time a little differently than we normally do,” says Henninger.
Evers Burns, PAL coordinator at Winfield PAL Center, agrees. “We’re averaging about 10 to 12 kids; we usually average anywhere from 40 to 50 during the summer,” he says. “But we’ve done a lot of history lessons, as well as gone outside and played social distancing games, like kickball or HORSE basketball.”
BCRP also plans to serve students when school resumes in the fall with distance learning. Bob Smith, chief of recreation services, says, “The option we’re looking at — in partnership with the school system, a couple of other local groups, and some of the community colleges and universities — is repurposing our community and recreation centers during the day. So, the kids would come in and access our WiFi.” He explains that BCRP could keep the numbers manageable based on physical distancing guidance. “We could just give kids some structured, daily activity on the educational side, as well as tie in some recreation pieces,” Smith says.
An Inflection Point in Racial Equality
On May 25, 2020, two incidents stoked by racism and unconscious bias changed the country: the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Amy Cooper’s false allegation against Christian Cooper (no relation) in New York City’s Central Park.
The Floyd case, in particular, sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the United States and around the world. It also marked the beginning of substantive conversations about race within companies and organizations. BCRP was no different, as the agency wanted to address race both internally and externally. “My thought was if it’s affecting me, I’m sure it’s affecting everyone else,” recalls Johnson. “So, we called in a consultant to actually meet with our staff virtually. And, we had segregated meetings, which is unheard of but is actually a best practice in these situations.” The rationale behind this decision was to first provide a safe space and lay the groundwork with each group individually — first with the African American staff and then with people who are allies or want to become an ally — and then bring everyone together. The department held a series of meetings, in which people shared their frustration, anger and other emotions. “It was really kind of a place for healing for all staff,” notes Johnson.
Externally, BCRP supported several Black Lives Matter protests that took place in many of the parks. Johnson says, “We worked in partnership with our police department. And, when we found out protests were occurring, we would let the police know” and vice versa. She adds that BCRP staff offered support by providing loudspeakers, stages or whatever organizers needed.
These historic events also inspired BCRP to launch the All Parks for All People initiative. As André Clark, PAL coordinator at Cockeysville PAL Center, explains: “It’s just our way of letting the community know that we do recognize that…people may feel marginalized and we’re going to do everything that we can to make sure that they understand that the parks are not just for one set of people or one type of person, but…that all of our parks are for all people.” In fact, BCRP staff produced a series of public service announcements (PSAs) in multiple languages to drive this message home. County Executive Olszewski appears in the first PSA for the campaign.
“Director Johnson and I are actually putting forward a pretty significant bond referendum this November,” says Olszewski. This $35 million bond referendum is focused on expanding equity in park facilities, which is consistent with the goal of the All Parks for All People campaign.
Johnson also reveals that to commemorate the anniversary of the March on Washington on August 28, 2021 and to promote racial equity in all parks, Baltimore County will curate a photography exhibition at Gwynn Oak Park in Woodlawn, Maryland, in Spring 2021. The art exhibit will depict racism and how it has affected people throughout the United States — while the chosen site is historically significant to the Civil Rights Movement. “It’s a park that in the past, was segregated and it was desegregated the same day as the first March on Washington,” Johnson notes.
The New Normal
For the past several months, BCRP staff have been adapting to their new roles and the new normal while continuing to serve their citizens and emphasizing the importance of equity. As Olszewski puts it: “It’s been incredible how they’ve responded, but I think good leadership and a good team environment make all the difference....”
Tune in to the September bonus episode of Open Space Radio to hear Roslyn Johnson discuss equity and how her team continues to help Baltimore County through difficult times.
Vitisia Paynich is Executive Editor, Print and Online Content at NRPA.