For an enhanced digital experience, read this story in the ezine.
A closer look at the inspiration behind July's Park and Recreation Month cover photo
One could argue that storytelling is like painting a picture with words. Stories have the power to break down barriers and inspire people. They give us an opportunity to learn something from a different perspective, understand each other in new ways, strengthen relationships and build community.
Stories also build trust and can strengthen a case for a worthy cause. Park and recreation professionals have myriad stories from the communities they serve and a cause worth strengthening at every chance they get. This July, for Park and Recreation Month, we are amplifying these stories that share the vast impacts that parks and recreation has on people in communities across the country.
Parks are at the center of so many experiences and memories — moments that park and recreation professionals help make happen. Our local parks are often our first experiences in nature, our introduction to a favorite hobby or physical activity. They are places to gather with friends and family, spaces to celebrate life’s special moments, spots of respite and healing, sites that connect us with essential community services, and so much more. Local parks have been essential throughout the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, with many people finding a new appreciation for the essential spaces park and recreation professionals manage and vital programs they provide. And, for some, their local parks are quite literally one of the only places they can go to find peace and tranquility.
Telling a Community’s Story
When Craig Pattenaude began his role as marketing and communications specialist for Cosumnes Community Services District (CSD) in Elk Grove, California, one of his first projects was to browse the department’s activity guide, which featured many of the programs offered in the community. Anywhere he noticed a stock photo (e.g., a generic photo from an online database) used for promoting a certain program or park, he would schedule a time to visit that program or park to take photographs that would more accurately represent the community in Elk Grove.
Pattenaude is part of the communications team at Cosumnes CSD, which oversees all of the branding and communications for the local parks and recreation, as well as the fire department. He primarily works on planning and developing content for the district, but his colleagues soon found out about his stellar photography skills, which would prove to be critical in sharing the stories of the diverse community they serve.
“It really started small,” says Jenna Brinkman, public affairs manager at Cosumnes CSD. “Once we realized the caliber [of photographs] that Craig could produce, we kind of upped the game a little bit and have been giving him some additional challenges.”
One of those challenges was introducing Pattenaude to Elk Grove families, so he could take photographs of them visiting the local parks and other areas managed by the district. One of their department’s goals was to show how members of the community use Cosumnes CSD’s parks.
“It helps [to] really show what’s going on and what our parks really look like,” says Brinkman. “Bringing in new residents here to our community, bringing in new businesses and visitors — that has a lot to do with the services that we provide. And, just showing the actual people in the parks every day and having that genuine and sincere feeling, I think, benefits everyone.”
Among the people Pattenaude connected with during this project were David Phommavong and his son, Khuan, who are members of the Elk Grove community. They decided to meet at Camden Park, one of the local parks the Phommavong family frequently visits, to walk the trails and have a photo session.
“What I [thought] of when we went out to photograph David’s family and another family in our community was, we really found the extraordinary in everyday life,” says Pattenaude. “It was an incredible feeling. After walking away from that photo session, there were just so many moments of deep connection. It just made me feel so in tune and present with our community. At that point, it was more than just a ‘community member,’ it’s David and his family. It’s more than just a face, it’s the story behind the people’s lives.”
Finding Bearing in Life
When the Phommavong family visits Camden Park, it’s about finding a reset and focusing on the little things that make life a little bit more enjoyable and more meaningful. But, it’s also a bit more complex than that. Khuan, who is 7 years old, was diagnosed with moderate-to-severe autism spectrum disorder (ASD) when he was 2 years old. ASD causes delays in his language and communication, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, and affects his ability to connect and engage with kids his own age.
“He doesn’t find enjoyment in pure play, and it took us a long time to do therapy,” says Phommavong. “He receives about 20 hours of applied behavior analysis therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy to focus on fine motor skills and gross motor skills, as well as feeding therapy. He’s also presenting attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and has sensory processing disorder.”
Sensory processing disorder is a condition that affects how the brain processes sensory information, such as sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. This makes it very difficult for Khuan to be around people, enjoy a meal, and many of the other everyday routines many people may take for granted. Visiting Camden Park gets him away from artificial noise, such as honking car horns, loud music or traffic, which could challenge his sensory system and trigger him into fight-or-flight mode.
This means trips to the local hardware store, birthday celebrations at a restaurant with family, and other outings that could have any extraneous noises are extremely painful for Khuan. Before he was able to articulate these feelings, Khaun would seek out the nearest exit with his hands over his ears because the sounds caused him so much pain.
“He’s constantly being attacked by the natural world that you and I enjoy. But to him, it hurts him,” says Phommavong. “So as a father, when I see my son in pain, I do everything I can to make sure we avoid these environmental factors. But that also lends itself to possibly growing up living his life in isolation. I don’t want him to grow up to be an adult who lives his life with two eyeballs behind the blinds at home.”
Phommavong fears that isolation could lead to depression, which is particularly high among individuals with autism. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), individuals with ASD are four times more likely to experience depression in their lifetime. So, while most of Khuan’s natural world may be painful for him and may cause a need to self-isolate, there is one healing place he doesn’t feel hurt by his surroundings — Camden Park.
“It’s almost paradise,” says Phommavong. “I talk about us taking a walk in Camden Park as a sort of ‘Garden of Eden.’ My son is able to interact with the environment in a three-dimensional world, away from the screen. He’s able to walk around the park without feeling like he’s being chased by a tiger.”
The sensory overload Khuan often experiences can be compared to the feeling of being chased by a tiger because he goes into survival mode when his sensory processing is being attacked. It’s difficult to enjoy much of anything when focusing on mere survival — it’s more about avoiding the threat and getting away safely. Phommavong doesn’t see the behaviors that indicate these feelings in Khuan when they are at the park. In fact, when they’re walking around Camden Park, Khuan is more talkative, asking questions, and his curiosity is elevated.
“When we’re at the park, he’s not in a state of sensory avoidance and is able to immerse himself in nature,” says Phommavong. “He’s pointing to the turtles, he’s picking up cattails, he’s running over to see the wildflowers and trying to figure out the names of them. I had to download an app on my phone because every time he sees a flower or a bush or a berry, he wants to know the name of it. So now, I’ll take a picture of whatever it is, and we read about it…talk about it, and he has a smile on his face. [He] then runs off to check out something else. Whenever a sensory mechanism is not triggered and he’s able to find enjoyment, that’s the sweet spot.”
Phommavong is thankful for the staff at Cosumnes CSD, and part of the reason his family moved to Elk Grove is because of the services they provide and spaces they manage that enrich the lives of people in the community — especially the lives of his family members. In fact, he says his family would likely look for a different city to live in if it weren’t for the parks in Elk Grove being so accessible.
“When we talk about finding a bearing in life, I think about these parks and being away from our busy lives, being away from the stress and all the other challenges, so we can decompress and just be in that moment. Just to enjoy it. Just to be able to sit down and refocus on the things that matter most — your kids, your family and nature. And the fact that my son isn’t bolting and running away from danger is, in itself, such a rewarding thing to see.”
For the Community, by the Community
The staff at Cosumnes CSD that Phommavong and his family are so thankful for are not just park and recreation professionals who work for the district, they’re also members of the community. They have their own memories and reasons why they love the parks in their community. For Cosumnes CSD’s Brinkman, her favorite memory is of a pickup soccer game on Sundays. The game was made up of community members, neighbors and friends from the ages of 7 to 70. There were no referees and they didn’t keep score — it was just an opportunity to bring people together who may not normally have the chance to connect.
“It was just a stress reliever from working a hard week…,” says Brinkman. “You would get to see friends and connect with people. Babies were born, people got married, we lost loved ones and all this other stuff that you go through. And we went through those things with that little group — and we were only brought together because of that park and that pickup soccer game.”
Pattenaude grew up visiting Cosumnes CSD parks with his grandmother, and now enjoys spending time in the same parks he grew up in with his own children.
“It’s just so fun to be able to take your family there, and now working at CSD, it’s like it’s come full circle. Now I get to promote these parks to the community. I get to share the experience of parks with other people — it’s just amazing,” says Pattenaude.
For Brinkman and Pattenaude, working at the district also comes with the benefit of building relationships with people in the community like David and Khuan Phommavong. “This is why we do what we do,” says Brinkman. “These parks are the Cosumnes CSD parks, but really they’re not — they’re the community’s parks and we’re just the stewards of them. So, it’s just amazing to see them in action and [it] gives you a really strong sense of pride.”
As for Khuan, he’ll have a lasting memory in the form of a valley oak tree he planted at an event in one of Cosumnes CSD’s parks. His father’s favorite memory of that event was seeing him play with the earthworms when they were digging to plant the tree. “Usually, because of his sensory processing disorder, he doesn’t like to touch anything icky or slimy, but this one particular instance didn’t bother him. I was thinking to myself, ‘that’s what I used to do as a child!’ It was great to see. He came home and his fingers were all covered with dirt and we planted two trees.”
For Phommavong, it’s all about quality of life for his son. The experiences in Cosumnes CSD’s parks allow Khuan to be free of some of the pain that comes with ASD and sensory processing disorder. These experiences allow him to just be a kid — curious, excited and eager to play. They allow him the comfort of not feeling like he’s being chased by a tiger. Because after all, how often do we get to enjoy life when we’re being chased by a tiger?
To hear more from Phommavong, Brinkman and Pattenaude, tune in to the July bonus episode of Open Space Radio at nrpa.org/July2021BonusEpisode. To learn more about Park and Recreation Month and read/hear more stories about the impact of parks and recreation on our communities, visit nrpa.org/July.
Cort Jones is NRPA’s Manager of Strategic Communications.