30 Under 30 for 2021

January 21, 2021, Feature, by Michael Biedenstein, CPRP, AFO

2021 February Feature 30 Under 30 410 2

For an enhanced digital experience, read this story in the ezine.

Parks & Recreation magazine and NRPA’s Young Professional Network launch a new program recognizing the 30 best and brightest young park and recreation professionals in the field

NRPA’s Young Professional Network (YPN) and Parks & Recreation magazine are proud to launch our first-ever “30 Under 30.” This new recognition program is a joint effort honoring 30 of the top young park and recreation professionals who, quite frankly, serve as everyday superheroes in their respective communities. More than 100 nominations were received, forming a diverse group of nominees from 29 different states, one Canadian province and one U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. The selection committee evaluated the nominations on one or more of the following criteria:

  • Impacts on the agency’s community and service population
  • Contributions to the professional development of the field of parks and recreation
  • Innovative ideas, programs and/or research in the field of parks and recreation

Following are the profiles of this inaugural class of the Parks & Recreation 30 Under 30. Their stories are full of passion, creativity, talent and perseverance. It is truly inspiring to see the profound impacts that these individuals are having in their communities and the field of parks and recreation.


Kendra Beaver, 27
Recreation Coordinator, City of Excelsior Springs Parks and Recreation (MO)
Certifications: CYSA, EPDC (Esports Program Director Certified) and First Aid/CPRKendra Beaver

Kendra Beaver graduated from Hannibal-LaGrange University with a bachelor’s degree in recreation management. As recreation coordinator for Excelsior Springs Parks and Recreation, Beaver has formed one of the nation’s leading P&R esports programs. In addition to serving dozens of participants each week in the city, what she is doing to educate, inform and promote this new recreation pursuit nationwide will have a profound impact on the field. She has presented at several national and state conferences, including those hosted by the Missouri, Wyoming and Wisconsin park and recreation associations. She is an advocate and speaker for NRPA’s YPN.


Eduardo Campos, 28
Marketing and Communications Manager, Mountain Recreation Metropolitan District (CO)Eduardo Campos

Eduardo “Eddie” Campos understands his community and its challenges. In college, he helped to connect people to their community to prevent social, emotional and mental health issues. This experience, paired with his community knowledge, sets Campos apart from the typical marketing manager. He reaches into local Latino neighborhoods and personally connects with individuals to learn how to better serve their needs. What’s more, Campos is leading a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) steering committee for Mountain Recreation that is intended not only to send staff members on their own personal DEI journeys, but also to share his organization’s journey with the public.


Amy Collier, 30
Grants Administration Specialist, City of Memphis Parks (TN)Amy Collier

In her three years with the City of Memphis, Amy Collier has elevated the Parks Division with every project she takes on. As a grants administration specialist, Collier has leveraged more than $2 million in grant funding. She has forged new relationships with local and national funders to benefit Memphis’ park system. While grant writing is naturally competitive, she truly desires the success of all park departments. Collier also advocates for neighborhood parks as critical infrastructure to benefit the city. Her passions for community and equity through parks are infectious and exactly the values that park professionals should strive to uphold.


Chris Curtis, 26
Esports Coordinator, South Suburban Parks and Recreation (CO)Chris Curtis

The impact Chris Curtis has made on the community in just one year with South Suburban Parks and Recreation has been astronomical, especially through his creation of an incredible esports lounge. Curtis continues to build new programs that offer an outlet for children and adults in the community through esports and competitive video games. An expert in the field, Curtis provides esports tournaments for the local Tekken and Super Smash Bros. competitive communities for no profit. He not only has changed the landscape of P&R, but also has used the esports lounge to help promote sanctioned esports in high schools.


Tanner Deisch, 29
Recreation Supervisor — Aquatics, Town of Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation (NC)
Certifications: CPRP, CPO, LGI, LGIT, WSI, WSIT

Tanner Deisch already has established himself as a leader in P&R. He is an aquatics supervisor for Town of Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation and served as the chair of the NRPA Aquatics Network, where he introduced new ideas and grew group membership. Earlier in his career in Greensboro (NC), Deisch developed partnerships with the Greensboro Housing Authority, UNC–Greensboro and the Greensboro Aquatic Center to increase the number of lifeguard staff from underrepresented populations. One noteworthy program that he developed entailed providing opportunities for teenagers living in public housing to develop the swimming skills necessary to become certified as lifeguards.


Matthew Denton, 27
Parks and Recreation Director, City of Smithville Parks and Recreation (MO)

In just two-and-a-half years, Matthew Denton has worked his way up from recreation and marketing manager to P&R director for City of Smithville. Denton is attentive to his team and leads by example with his strong work ethic. As director, he has developed new trails systems, made campground enhancements in all 83 campsites, made bathroom and shower house upgrades and repairs, added livestreaming cameras at ballfields, and more. Denton is a member of professional organizations, including NRPA and his state P&R association, MPRA, where he currently serves as MPRA Sports Section secretary/treasurer and MPRA Region 1 membership chair.


Nigel Dooling, 27
Senior Recreation Program Coordinator, City of Fort Lauderdale Parks and Recreation (FL)
Certifications: National Safety Council — Advanced 1st Aid, Adult, Child and Infant CPR/AED

In March 2020, Fort Lauderdale’s parks shut down due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which meant no play for adult softball leagues. However, Nigel Dooling, senior recreation program coordinator, and his counterpart were confident that play could take place in a safe manner. They presented guidelines to the administration. In June, the agency’s adult softball leagues resumed. Seeing the enjoyment of a simple game of softball by participants encouraged Dooling and his counterpart to keep the leagues running in a safe environment. It was clear that participants not only wanted to play, but also needed this outlet.


Becky Dunlap, 29
Consultant, GreenPlay, LLC (GA)
Certification: CPRP

In 2017, Becky Dunlap launched “Becky Talks Parks,” a podcast focused on P&R trends and challenges, and shared knowledge that encouraged listeners to have an increased positive impact on communities. Dunlap eventually changed the podcast’s name to “Let’s Talk Parks,” to be more inclusive and impactful. Through her current work with GreenPlay, LLC, she helps agencies strive to meet the ever-changing needs of their communities. Dunlap champions gender equity in P&R and dedicates her efforts toward creating platforms and opportunities for women to support each other personally and professionally. She is a member of the Women in Parks and Recreation group.


Lauren Eck, 27
Recreation Specialist III, Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation (AK)
Certifications: CPRP, Leave No Trace Master Educator

In 2017, Laura Eck began working for Fairbanks North Star Borough Parks and Recreation as a recreation specialist. This was a new position and other than swim lessons, essentially no programming was being offered to the community. Given few staff, resources and funds, Eck worked hard to build a much-needed programming department. Her expertise lies in creating programs and events, coordinating marketing and graphic design efforts, and leading staff, interns and volunteers. She has launched a variety of programs, including Mess Makers, a parent-tot art program in partnership with the local Children’s Museum, and pop-up playground programs in low-income areas.


Joshua Edwards, 27
Director of Recreation, Blue Island Park District (IL)

As Director of Recreation, Joshua Edwards made a deliberate decision to hire interns from nearby colleges as well as coordinators with diverse backgrounds. He believes it’s critical for P&R to have minority representation in Blue Island. As a result, interns and coordinators gain experience in recreation programs, special events and stewardship. Edwards leads workshops, internships and mock interviews to educate students on how they can make a difference within the profession. He contends this helps students take what they learn in the classroom and apply it in the field. What’s more, Edwards mentors college graduates and young professionals entering the P&R profession.


Geordie Emmanuel, 25
Deputy Director of Recreation, Town of East Longmeadow (MA)
Certification: AFO

When George “Geordie” Emmanuel joined the Town of East Longmeadow’s P&R department as deputy director of recreation, its programming options exploded. Emmanuel added an adventure camp for teens and non-sports-related programs — including a safe@home class, STEM classes and an afterschool program that started after COVID-19 began. He also ran 13 weeks of day camp to meet the needs of parents with no childcare options. Emmanuel creates a fun working environment and motivates staff to give it their all. He maintains an excellent balance between youthfulness and strong professional standards.


Sandip Gill, 24
Middle Years Coordinator, DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society (BC, Canada)

As middle years coordinator, Sandip Gill works with refugee children ages 6 to 12 in the First Steps Early Years Refugee Program. Many of these children and their families fled war-torn countries and witnessed traumatic incidents. Gill works with them to establish a positive, caring adult relationship with each child. She introduces them to P&R opportunities in the community that are accessible, free or low cost. She also takes the children to community events so they can become integrated into Canadian society and learn to be engaged members of their new communities.


Brett Gordon, 27
Inclusion Specialist, City of Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation (VA)
Certifications: Certified Inclusivity Assessor, Certified External Assessor for Youth Development Program Quality

Social equity is not a foreign concept to Brett Gordon. As an inclusion specialist, he lives it every day. In 2018, Gordon coordinated a new special event, “Unity Week,” which celebrates our differences and embraces the unique aspects that set us apart with positivity and acceptance. The Virginia Recreation and Parks Society recognized Unity Week as the Best New Special Event for 2018. In 2019, Gordon compelled other city departments to move the initiative forward by wearing orange, sharing special unity messages and sponsoring community activities. Almost overnight, this event went from a department initiative to a citywide, all-departments event.


Kira Haley, 29
Lake Recreation Manager, Helix Water District (CA)
Certification: CPRE

In 2014, Kira Haley’s recruitment as lake recreation manager was Helix Water District’s last effort to find someone who could lead staff in creating a self-sustaining operation that serves the public with outdoor experiences. To help rebrand the lake, Haley created a new website and marketing plan, built a social media presence and reached out to the community. Infrastructure needs at the campground and lake were addressed by creating plans for replacement and renovation and expanding offerings. A short time after her hire, the lake was recovering all operating expenses. The campground remained in operation, allowing the lake and campground to remain open for many years to come.


Nicolette “Niki” Hoesman, 27
Community Program Coordinator, Urbana Park District (IL)

Nicolette “Niki” Hoesman has been at the Urbana Park District for three years and is always thinking first about what kids would want to do. Hoesman has been a large part of the park district’s “You Belong Here” initiative and has focused on making sure everyone feels welcome. She has been in charge of the park district’s arts programming, and has always looked for ways to get the most out of her budget. During the community’s COVID-19 lockdown, she began teaching virtual American Sign Language classes for kids and running a Kids Craft Club on Zoom for which she delivered supplies to their houses and then did projects over the internet with them. Hoseman’s creativity and dedication to providing children with safe and fun activities are boundless!


Taylor Hooker, 26
Recreation Therapist, Veterans Healthcare Administration (MN)
Certifications: CTRS, ACSM CIFT, CDCS

Taylor Hooker is a passionate advocate for our veterans and is dedicated to improving their quality of life. She highlights the use of recreation and leisure as key components of a healthy lifestyle for veterans and their families. Her current work focuses on advocating for and assessing the use of Equine Assisted Services for veterans. At the Veterans Healthcare Administration, she promotes using evidence-based practices for those interested in bringing Equine Assisted Services to their Veterans Affairs locations. During COVID-19, Hooker worked with her colleagues to transform these services into virtual formats, including leisure education, stress management and health coaching.


Alex Hurdle, 29
Recreation Coordinator, City of Durham Parks and Recreation (NC)
Certification: CPRP

Alex Hurdle is dedicated to the P&R field, especially as it relates to public health. Hurdle serves on community advisory boards, including the Duke Health and Durham County Health Department, to ensure P&R is taking an active role in improving community health. He has created programming to address issues relating to food insecurity, diabetes and food access, and willingly shares his knowledge with other P&R professionals. Along with his work on public health, Hurdle has served on the NRPA Certified Park and Recreation Professional Exam Committee, which helps shape the exam that dictates the profession’s standards.


Matthew Kerns, 26
At Large — Park and Recreation Professional, Formerly with Metro Parks Tacoma (WA)
Certifications: CPRP, Lean Six Sigma Green Belt

Matthew Kerns was facility supervisor for South Tacoma Activity and Recreation Center when COVID-19 hit. The facility remains closed due to pandemic restrictions, which meant he lost his job among 40 other staff. However, Kerns has found ways to volunteer with the Washington Recreation and Parks Association. He helped design and implement a survey that studied the impacts of COVID-19 on the state’s P&R agencies. Kerns also organized a community drive-in movie series this past summer, which allowed families to safely recreate. With only three staff working the event, laid-off and furloughed staff volunteered each weekend to help make the movie series successful.


Rebecca Lackey, 28
Recreation Specialist I, City of Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation (VA)
Certification: ACA Level II

Rebecca Lackey is an inspiration and an amazing team member in the City of Virginia Beach’s Parks and Recreation Department. She makes contributions to the agency’s Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies submission, teaches at local meetings and at the Virginia Parks and Recreation Society Conference, and works on departmental committees. Lackey also served on one of City of Virginia Beach P&R’s Strategic Initiative Teams. She was the youngest member and the only person selected who was not in an executive or management position. This was a great testament to her character and leadership in the community.


Sarah Larson, 23
Deputy Superintendent, Bristol Parks, Recreation, Youth and Community Services (CT)

As the deputy superintendent of Bristol Parks, Recreation, Youth and Community Services, Sarah Larson provides access to essential services and park facilities that meet the community’s diverse needs. She is the youngest deputy superintendent in department history. Larson has prioritized centering diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the agency’s initiatives, creating a DEI committee to review departmental policies and practices, developing the city’s first Land Acknowledgement to affirm the municipality and department as stewards of the land of the Tunxis Peoples, and collaborating with the Commission for Persons with Disabilities to implement strategies of universal design in programs, facilities and parks.


Cameron Levis, 27
Special Populations Instructor, City of Bowling Green Parks and Recreation (KY)
Certifications: CPRP, CARSS I (Certified Adaptive Recreation and Sport Specialist)

Cameron Levis’ passion for P&R is rooted in a love for serving people with disabilities, ensuring they are afforded the same opportunities to pursue recreation and sport as their peers. He is a special populations instructor for City of Bowling Green Parks and Recreation. While hosting Bowling Green’s first-ever wheelchair basketball tournament, Levis met an athlete from Cincinnati who was playing in his first tournament. The man was a gunshot victim paralyzed from the waist down with limited mobility in his upper body. This interaction, along with so many others over the years, provides Levis with motivation at work every day.


Adam Lewandowski, 29
Athletic Manager, Wheaton Park District (IL)
Certifications: CPRP, CPO

Adam Lewandowski has made a significant impact in Wheaton and P&R. He has provided and expanded baseball, softball, football, cheer, rugby, adult softball, field hockey and sport camps to more than 5,000 participants annually. Lewandowski also oversees the two community manmade ice rinks, favored by the community, attracting almost 30 participants per hour of operation. He has been very innovative in the community — starting a new field hockey program, launching a new wrestling program, streamlining communication with part-time staff through a mobile app, and implementing an Ice-A-Palooza event that drew more than 1,500 people in just its second year.


AJ McCage, 29
Community Recreation Supervisor, City of Hopewell Recreation and Parks (VA)
Certification: CTRS

AJ McCage is a certified therapeutic recreational specialist who serves as community recreation supervisor at Hopewell Recreation and Parks, where she oversees and facilitates programming in all areas, including early education, seniors, special needs and summer camp. Within the first few months of her employment, she developed several classroom programs and currently serves as a member of the Special Education Advisory Committee for Hopewell schools. Her involvement with Jack-O-Lantern Jamboree, a community-wide Halloween event with an emphasis on sensory stimulation and special needs adaptation, helped Hopewell garner the Best New Special Event Award at Virginia Recreation and Parks Society’s 2019 state conference.


Angel Obert, 29
Assistant Director of Parks and Recreation, Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City (KS)
Certifications: CPRP, AFO

As the assistant director at Unified Government’s Parks and Recreation Department, Angel Obert is very active in the community she serves. In her spare time, Obert volunteers as a youth sports coach. She has been indispensable in many projects that have had proven, extraordinary impacts on P&R and the community. These projects include opening the county’s first all-inclusive playground and being one of five recipients out of 200-plus applicants to be awarded a grant for the city’s first dog park. She also oversaw the implementation of new software that is transforming the department’s ability to serve the community.


Maxime Pierre, 28
Deputy Director, City of Little Rock Parks and Recreation (AR)
Certification: CPRP

Prior to coming to Little Rock (AR), Maxime Pierre worked for the City of Asheville (NC) as a recreation facility manager overseeing a senior center. While there he saw opportunities to integrate youth into the facility to create an intergenerational center and to develop equitable programming for low-income youth of color. Pierre also started Asheville’s esports league, reaching more than 80 participants the first weekend after the program launched. As the newly appointed deputy director of parks and recreation with the City of Little Rock, Pierre has overseen the reopening of recreation centers by implementing innovative safety measures.


Bianca Posada, 28
Program Director, Oakland, Parks, Recreation and Youth Dev. (CA)

As program director for Oakland, Parks, Recreation and Youth Development (OPRYD), Bianca Posada has made numerous contributions, such as serving as the department’s citywide public contact for inclusion-related inquiries, resources and services; leading a robust Teen Inclusion Program; providing technical assistance to all internal program sites related to inclusion services; and proactively reaching out to sites offering assistance and resources. Posada also has assisted with the planning and facilitation of an early childhood program; and has created training/resources for OPRYD that addresses such topics as accommodations and modifications for work, events and programs, and positive behavior strategies that can be used with all youth.


Julia Robson, 30
Conservation Biologist, Waukesha County Parks and Land Use (WI)
Certifications: Certified Pesticide Applicator 6.0; Wildland Firefighter Training ICS 100; S-130/L-180/S-190, IS-700; Level 3 Birder Certification: Grassland, Wetland and Forest Habitat Types; Certified Carnivore Tracker

As a conservation biologist, Julia Robson has the distinct duty of maintaining the natural areas and wildlife in Waukesha County. However, she is not just committed to her daily work, but also dedicated to the field of conservation. Her work has been recognized by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, her alma mater the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and other organizations. What is most impressive about Robson is her commitment to ideals greater than herself. In 2017, she and a fellow explorer walked 343 miles from Milwaukee to the shores of Lake Superior, in an effort to raise awareness about the conservation of the great lakes.


Marisa Sedlak, 28
Recreation Activities Coordinator, Town of Beech Mountain Parks and Recreation (NC)
Certifications: CPRP, Certified Interpretive Guide, Certified NC Environmental Educator, Lifetime Member GSUSA, Leave No Trace Trainer, First Aid/AED

Marisa Sedlak is the recreation activities coordinator for Town of Beech Mountain Parks and Recreation Department (BMPRD). She also serves as camp director for BMPRD’s Camp Buckeye summer camp. Sedlak is always thinking of ways to establish programs and events that will be self-sustaining, long lasting and a good use of resources. She established the Beech Mountain Water Conservation Education Program to help educate community members on the importance of the river systems and their relationship to Beech Mountain. Sedlak also established BMPRD’s Volunteer Trail Guide Program to increase access to the trail system on Beech Mountain and meaningfully engage volunteers.


Felicia Trainor, 30
Facility Coordinator, City of Cooper City Recreation (FL)
Certification: CPRP

Felicia Trainor’s recreation career began four years ago. Her vast accomplishments have exceeded expectations and will have a lasting impact on her department and community. Under Trainor’s command as the recreation program specialist, the City of Cooper City’s special event attendance increased by 60 percent. She not only enhanced the city’s programs, but also expanded community involvement with larger capacity venues. Furthermore, she created an “At the Park Campaign” initiative to encourage residents to meet, “At the Park.” Making her career development a priority, Trainor was promoted to facility coordinator and became an NRPA Certified Park and Recreation Professional in 2019.


Paula Willis, 30
Parks and Recreation Director, South Fayette Township Parks and Recreation (PA)
Certification: CPRP

As South Fayette Township’s first female P&R director, Paula Willis has innovatively created and expanded recreational opportunities, as well as advanced and established park amenities. As a one-person department with limited resources, she developed creative approaches to position recreation programs and parks as essential public services. South Fayette had limited programming with 20 programs offered annually; however, she expanded this to 42 in 2016 and 88 in 2017, diversifying recreational opportunities. Program revenue increased from $22,412 in 2015 to $55,828 in 2016 and $71,342 in 2019. Having no community center, Willis worked with fire departments, schools and other organizations to utilize their facilities.


Thank You to Our 30 Under 30 Selection Committee

  • Chris Bass, CPRP — Douglasville Parks and Recreation (GA)
  • Michael Biedenstein, CPRP, AFO — St. Louis County Parks and Recreation (MO)
  • Kate Connell, CPRP, AFO — Iowa City Parks and Recreation (IA)
  • Sam Mendelsohn — Greenfields Outdoor Fitness
  • Lisa Paradis, CPRP — Berry Dunn
  • Ronnetta Spalding — Indy Parks and Recreation (IN)
  • Anne-Marie Spencer — Playcore

To hear Michael Biedenstein and Hayley Herzing, NRPA’s senior manager of membership, talk more about these “30 Under 30” young park and recreation professionals, tune in to the February bonus episode of Open Space Radio at nrpa.org/February2021BonusEpisode.

Michael Biedenstein, CPRP, AFO, is Park Program Services Division Manager for St. Louis County (Missouri) Parks and Past Chair of NRPA's Young Professional Network.