30 Under 30 for 2024

January 25, 2024, Feature, by Vitisia Paynich and Michael Biedenstein, CPRP, AFO

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

It’s that time of the year again, when Parks & Recreation magazine celebrates a new group of young professionals who have raised the bar even higher for the park and recreation profession due to their extraordinary work in the field. These 30 individuals join a relatively small, yet prestigious, club comprising just 90 other young park and recreation professionals who have been inducted into the program since its inception in 2021.

The 30 Under 30 recognition program is a joint effort by the NRPA Young Professional Network and Parks & Recreation magazine, honoring 30 of the top young professionals who serve as everyday champions in their communities. This year, we received more than 100 nominations representing 26 states and four Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) programs around the world. The scoring committee evaluated the nominations on one or more of the following criteria:

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

Below are the profiles of this year’s outstanding Parks & Recreation 30 Under 30 inductees. These exceptional and diverse professionals have accomplished so much in their early park and recreation careers. And, at the pace that they’re going, it’s clear their best work lies ahead of them. Congratulations, Class of 2024!

Jaimie Belch, CTRS, 25

Therapeutic Research Specialist, Isle of Wight County Parks and Recreation Department (VA)

Jaimie Belch is Isle of Wight County (Virginia) Parks and Recreation Department’s first-ever Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist. Her passionate advocacy for people with disabilities has led to the creation of therapeutic recreation programs that improve quality of life with recreation and leisure as key components. Her Summer Blast-No Limits for youth and Sunny Smiles Day Camp for adults programs offer fun and positive experiences that increase awareness of skills and abilities, as well as build self-esteem. Belch also created the RISE (Resilient-Independent-Social-Empowerment) program, which affords adults with disabilities a chance to socialize, learn independent living skills and recreate.

Erin Bonikowske, CTRS, 30

Adaptive Recreation Specialist, City of Brooklyn Park, Recreation and Parks Department (MN)

As the adaptive recreation specialist, Erin Bonikowske has expanded services and program opportunities to individuals with physical, intellectual and cognitive disabilities; severe allergies; behavior concerns and other inclusion needs in City of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, and the surrounding community. Bonikowske enhanced adaptive and inclusion program policies and procedures, as well as an individualized inclusion in-service training for all program areas to train staff members in best practices to assist all abilities in recreational programs. She has expanded community partnerships with Courage-Kenny, Reach for Resources, community group homes and the Osseo Area School District. Bonikowske also partnered to create and implement the first All-Abilities Resource Fair in Brooklyn Park.

Katelyn Brazell, CPRP, CPO, 30

Recreation Superintendent, City of Fredericksburg (TX)

Katelyn Brazell leads the recreation division at the City of Fredericksburg (Texas) Parks and Recreation. In her role, Brazell transformed the park headquarters from a part-time operation into a cohesive team comprising three full-time and two part-time employees. She led an overhaul of the aquatics division, ensuring municipal pools met state codes and enhancing water quality, equipment and facilities. Brazell also played a pivotal role in fostering stronger community engagement by partnering with local public and private schools and private sports organizations to streamline field, court and pool usage. This collaboration facilitated increased interest in recreational sports within the community.

Courtney Burns, CPRP, 28

Sustainability Coordinator, Borough of Quakertown (PA)

As parks coordinator for the Borough of Quakertown, Pennsylvania, Courtney Burns’ mission has been to create and upgrade park spaces that dissolve barriers for her community, ensuring safe, inclusive spaces for all to recreate. Specifically, Burns prioritized accessibility for children with diverse abilities, which culminated in the creation of an all-inclusive playground through collaboration with KOMPAN Inc. She also introduced a new community garden and a refreshed pollinator garden. With these spaces, Burns has connected with local institutions and agencies to educate on and implement environmental initiatives. Through grant writing and research efforts, she has secured more than $500,000 in funding to redevelop park spaces and upgrade existing infrastructure.

Alina Cabrera, CPRP, 26

Recreation Leader – Athletics and Wellness, Passaic County Parks and Recreation (NJ)

Before Alina Cabrera joined Passaic County (New Jersey) Parks and Recreation in July 2022, the department was failing to properly engage its Hispanic/Latino population whose first-spoken language wasn’t English. Cabrera, who is of Dominican descent and a Passaic resident, took it upon herself to translate all of the department’s outreach messaging to the community into Spanish. As a result, the number of Hispanic/Latino participants in Passaic County’s programs skyrocketed. She also researched the median household incomes of the residents in the county to ensure every child has the ability to attend park and recreation programs by making them affordable.

Haley Colucci, CPRP, 28

Marketing and Communications Manager, Oak Brook Park District (IL)

As the marketing and communications manager at the Oak Brook Park District (OBPD) in Illinois, Haley Colucci centers her work around environmental sustainability, DEI and professional development. She has assisted with initiatives, including paper-shredding events, bee apiary upkeep and the creation of the “Supporting Our LGBTQ Youth” video. Colucci also has made membership forms more inclusive by removing questions that ask participants their gender or their relationship to their emergency contact and helped plan a “Diversity Job Fair.” Currently, Colucci is assisting OBPD’s DEI team with the creation of a tool kit for employees who are transitioning in the workplace.

Kate DeAngelis, CTRS, 26

Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, Lexington Recreation and Community Programs (MA)

Kate DeAngelis is a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist for the Town of Lexington, Massachusetts. She focuses on the department-wide inclusion and adaptive services and evaluates all programs for delivery, inclusion requests, modifications, staff and volunteer trainings, community outreach and grant writing. DeAngelis has secured approximately $75,000 in grant support over the past three years, onboarded more than 20 part-time inclusion staff and dozens of volunteers, and processed more than 200 unique inclusion requests for all ages and abilities in 2023. She also developed and implemented a Leadership in Training program for teens of all abilities and created inclusion job opportunities.

Alejandro (Alex) Diaz, CPRP, CYSA, 29

Community Recreation Director, Naval Base Ventura County (MWR - CA)

Alex Diaz’s dedication to enhancing the lives of military personnel and their families through his involvement in the $6 million restaurant, bar and recreation center renovation project on San Nicolas Island (SNI) in Ventura County, California, is a testament to his commitment to fostering community engagement and collaboration. He developed an expansion plan for recreation programs on SNI and established Commander, Navy lnstallations Command accreditation standards that set a high benchmark for program quality. In a previous role, Diaz secured $50,000 in grant funding to enhance senior services in Roswell, New Mexico, illustrating his resourcefulness in improving the quality of life for residents.

Ashley Faulcon, YMHFA, tMHFA, 27

Program Coordinator, Youth/Community Services, East Brunswick Recreation and Parks (NJ)

Ashley Faulcon is the youth and community services program coordinator for the Township of East Brunswick, New Jersey. As the advisor of the East Brunswick Youth Council, Faulcon supports this 400-student organization in providing services for teens. She also has secured more than $120,000 in grant funding for the Youth Council. Faulcon is a teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA) instructor and has certified more than 125 youth in tMHFA, which helps to train teens to recognize if a friend is experiencing a mental health challenge and learn how to connect their friend with a trusted adult. Faulcon oversees yearly food drives and seasonal school supply drives.

Alison (Ali) Geary, 30

Marketing and Communications Manager, Elk Grove Park District (IL)

Ali Geary serves as the marketing and communications manager at Elk Grove (Illinois) Park District, where she aims to grow the organization’s visibility, engagement and impact in the community. Geary uses innovation to build successful community-centric brands for recreation facilities that embody connection, innovation and profitability. These projects include leading the marketing, branding and public relations strategies for two multimillion -
dollar projects: 390 Golf Experience and the redevelopment of White Oaks Park at Wood Dale Park District. Additionally, she is working on rebranding Pavilion Fitness at Elk Grove Park District. Geary received the 2020 Rising Star Award on behalf of the Illinois Parks and Recreation Association Marketing and Communication section.

Brandon Grasmick, 28

Recreation Coordinator - Special Events, Town of Erie (CO)

Brandon Grasmick, special events coordinator for the Town of Erie, Colorado, oversees external event approvals and orchestrates 15 large-scale events, catering to a diverse population. His creative touch is evident in the events he manages, including the Strider Bike Derby, Family Health & Fitness Day and Boo on Briggs!, among others. These events consistently draw 14,000 attendees annually from a community with a population of more than 30,000. Grasmick’s marketing expertise also has generated more than $50,000 in additional annual revenue. He has cultivated valuable partnerships with local businesses, acquiring 25 new sponsors and an extra $16,000 in sponsorship revenue since 2020.

Jamaal Hines, 30

Recreation Senior Specialist, Prince William County Parks and Recreation (VA)

As the afterschool director at Lake Braddock Secondary, Jamaal Hines was responsible for transforming the existing afterschool program into a virtual program to support students through remote learning due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The afterschool program offered more than 30 virtual activities in which Hines coordinated instructors to provide engaging enrichment opportunities for students. During the 2020-2021 school year, Hines increased the program’s registration numbers by approximately 75 percent during the next year as students transitioned back to in-person learning. By the end of 2023, registrations had surpassed 600. Hines currently serves as Prince William County Parks and Recreation’s program director of before-/after-school care and youth camps.

Jeffrey (Jeff) Holzer, CPSI, PLA, 30

Landscape Architect, Kimley-Horn (VA)

Jeff Holzer is a licensed landscape architect (LA) at Kimley-Horn. Among more than 300 LAs across more than 110 offices, he’s the only Certified Playground Safety Inspector. This empowers Holzer to integrate his playground expertise and advocacy for inclusive play for numerous park and recreation departments across the country. He has advised on more than 100 park and playground designs, all with inclusive play elements. Holzer proposes the latest innovations in his design using recycled materials, scientifically-proven products for safety, and new
technology-based play elements for varying experiences. In 2020, he won a design competition from his sketch and essay, “Inclusive Playgrounds for All.”

Molly Keays, 28

Director of Parks and Recreation, Town of South Windsor (CT)

Under Molly Keays’ leadership, the Town of South Windsor, Connecticut, has experienced an unprecedented wave of transformative initiatives and advancements. She has championed the cause of fostering healthy and active living, social engagement and youth development, ensuring residents from all walks of life have equal access to vital recreational programs and facilities. As director, Keays oversees 875 acres of parks, 16 miles of trails and an extensive array of more than 200 annual programs, catering to the diverse needs and interests of the town’s population. Furthermore, Keays’ unwavering dedication has yielded substantial grant acquisitions exceeding $1.5 million for park infrastructure.

Megan Keul, 28

Marketing Coordinator, Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation (NC)

At Mecklenburg County (North Carolina) Park and Recreation, Megan Keul has transformed how the county tells its story. More than 40,000 subscribers discover program offerings and events through Park Gram, and @MeckParkRec social has exploded since Keul arrived. Jay Tryon, superintendent of community recreation, says, “Megan has been instrumental in increasing awareness and engagement with our residents. Within her first year, she created consistent messaging leading to increased registration and overall knowledge of offerings. [She] has expanded promotions for special events, countywide leagues, mobile recreation and new facilities. With her leadership, the ‘Meck Rec and Roll’ mobile recreation initiative has reached over 10,000 residents.”

Daniel Lazo, 27

Public Information Manager, City of San José Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services Department (CA)

Daniel Lazo serves as public information manager for San José Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services Department. As the spokesperson and brand manager, Lazo has coordinated more than 200 stories on a variety of topics, such as emergency response, new parks and wildlife safety tips, for major media outlets in 2023. With his background, Lazo submitted the park name, “Delano Manongs Park,” the first park in San José to be named after an important piece of Filipino American history. The name recognizes the Filipino American farmworkers’ part of the Manong (“older brother” in Ilokano) generation, who sparked the international five-year boycott on grapes alongside Mexican farmworkers.

Franky Lazo, CPRP, CPSI, 30

Assistant Recreation and Parks Director, City of Boynton Beach Recreation and Parks Department (FL)

As the assistant director of the Boynton Beach (Florida) Recreation and Parks Department, Franky Lazo guides the operations of 32 parks, seven recreation centers, a swimming pool and a municipal beach. Lazo has helped to craft short- and long-term strategic plans — including the Park System Master Plan, which he helped develop through active engagement with staff, business leaders, stakeholders and community members. He also aided in research, surveys and program analytics to evaluate community needs. Lazo’s commitment to excellence, strategic vision and community-focused initiatives have helped to further the mission of creating a community space where individuals can thrive, find joy and make lasting memories.

Javier Martinez, CPRP, 28

Manager of Fitness and Aquatics, Waukegan Park District (IL)

Javier Martinez joined the Waukegan (Illinois) Park District team as a recreation specialist in 2018. He was responsible for transforming programming for all nature enthusiasts and increased participation by repurposing an existing unused facility to create Nature’s Classroom, an experience offering fun, hands-on learning about the environment. Martinez has since been promoted to manager of fitness and aquatics, overseeing facility operations for a health and wellness facility. In his role, Martinez has led a water safety initiative by coordinating a program that eliminates barriers to access — providing free indoor swim lessons to patrons. Access also has increased by expanding the program to every second-grade student in Waukegan.

Martin Martinez, 30

Management Analyst, City of Perris (CA)

As a management analyst for the City of Perris, California, Martin Martinez played a critical role in the transformation of an illegal dumping site into a beautiful 10-acre park in an underserved area called the Enchanted Hills Community. Martinez played a pivotal role in securing an $8.5 million state grant along with an additional $3 million in allocated city funding for park construction. Surveys indicated that the local residents felt neglected because funding had not been invested in their neighborhood for accessible recreational amenities and green spaces. Martinez facilitated the partnerships, collaborations and relationships with residents, local businesses, neighboring schools and elected officials to make this park a reality.

Wesley Norwood, CPRP, CPSI, 29

Parks Superintendent, City of Boynton Beach (FL)

As parks superintendent for the City of Boynton Beach, Florida, Wesley Norwood’s oversight extends across parks maintenance, right-of-ways maintenance and cemetery/mausoleum sections, while ensuring the upkeep of 32 parks. He also manages a $4.5 million budget, which has included overseeing the construction of the city’s first permanent pickleball courts and new playground equipment installations at various parks, the resurfacing of multiple outdoor basketball courts and mausoleum improvements. He also led multiple field renovations like the department’s Little League Park. Norwood also has been instrumental in various key initiatives, such as contributing to the department’s new Parks System Master Plan and the CAPRA accreditation process.

Dagne Ode, 27

Liberty Program Manager, U.S. Naval Air Facility Misawa (MWR - JP)

Dagne Ode manages programming at the Single Sailor Liberty Program and Center at U.S. Naval Air Facility Misawa in Japan. The Liberty Program offers healthy lifestyle opportunities for sailors. Ode’s marketing and design background has elevated the program’s overall look. Working without a marketing department, she created marketing materials and promoted the program through social media, email, radio and print. Ode partnered with multiple organizations on the installation and in the local Japanese community to provide events and cultural and nature trips for sailors. She also partnered with the Air Force’s Outdoor Recreation Program to develop tours and build camaraderie between Air Force and Navy service members.

Rosie Pahl Donaldson, CPRP, 30

Land Acquisition Supervisor, City of Ann Arbor (MI)

In 2022, Rosie Pahl Donaldson, land acquisition supervisor for the City of Ann Arbor (Michigan) Parks and Recreation Service’s Greenbelt land conservation program, and her colleague Remy Long launched the first land preservation program in the state to use the buy-protect-sell method to create equitable and affordable farmland purchasing opportunities for land-insecure farmers. The Greenbelt purchased a farm to reserve a conservation easement on it and sell the farm again at a reduced price based on eligibility criteria. Pahl Donaldson developed the eligibility and scoring criteria for the proposals mostly from scratch and is now managing the proposal and selection process.

Julie Predieri, 30

Forestry Supervisor, City of Gahanna (OH)

As the forestry supervisor for the City of Gahanna, Ohio, Julie Predieri established a goal of increasing the city’s urban tree canopy. At the time, she was the only full-time staff member dedicated to forestry for the city, which manages more than 800 acres of parkland. She ultimately achieved the goal of planting at least 100 park trees annually. Gahanna doesn’t currently own or maintain its trees in the right-of-way; however, Predieri recognized the best way to expand the urban canopy was to manage the operation of street trees. Thus, the forestry team now comprises six full-time staff members and a budget for a citywide street tree program.

Danielle (Dani) Schneider, 30

Director of Parks and Recreation, City of St. Marys Parks and Recreation (PA)

Dani Schneider became the first year-round and full-time director of parks and recreation for the small, rural City of St. Marys, Pennsylvania, in June 2019. Since then, she has established a new online presence via social media and robust marketing and implemented new online registration software, increasing the membership and program participation by 40 percent. Under her leadership, programs and events within the St. Marys area have gone from (summer only) 15 to an impressive (year-round) 45 with the help of community organizations, agencies and various partnerships. Since fall 2019, the department has received grants, donations and sponsorships totaling $249,000.

Jill Sellers, CPRE, CPSI, 28

Parks and Recreation Director, Town of China Grove (NC)

Jill Sellers is parks and recreation director for the Town of China Grove, North Carolina. She has secured more than $300,000 in the town’s first Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grant, a scholarship to attend her first national conference, a $1,000 grant from North Carolina Recreation and Park Association and $5,000 in funding from the local Town Council to launch the first recreational programming for China Grove. She also assisted with securing a $35,000 cybersecurity grant. As the sole employee of the parks and recreation department, she also coordinates more than 20 events annually, assists with a Youth Sports league, and oversees four local parks and a community building.

Mark Simmons, CPRP, 30

Recreation and Senior Center Director, Town of Plainfield (CT)

When Mark Simmons became the recreation and senior center director for the Town of Plainfield, Connecticut, he inherited a struggling department that served a distressed population where 58 percent of the student-age population lives in rural poverty. During his first year, Simmons established new afterschool STEM programs. With the assistance of a grant writer, he secured nearly $2 million in grants for capital improvements at local parks, enhanced summer camp programming and improved senior center services. By the end of fiscal year 2022-2023, the department had generated more than $260,000 in revenue and offered more than 450 activities. All of this was achieved while also keeping program fees affordable.

Cameron Smith, CPRP, 29

Ph.D. Student, Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, Clemson University (SC)

As a scholar and practitioner, Cameron Smith has made profound contributions to the field, with a particular focus on racial equity. He has worked tirelessly to ensure underserved and marginalized communities have access to the benefits of parks and recreation. Professionally, he primarily has served as a community center director in low-income areas across North Carolina. In this role, Smith strived to create accessible opportunities for his community members by providing affordable programs, developing nature-based curriculums tailored for his specific population, and advocating for greater social needs and well-being for those he serves. His commitment to fostering racial equity is evident in every project and program he leads.

Kennedy Terrill, 25

Recreation Coordinator, City of Chandler (AZ)

Kennedy Terrill, the coordinator responsible for City of Chandler (Arizona) Recreation’s teen programming and community engagement, has made a remarkable impact. Her commitment to community engagement and mentorship distinguishes her as an exceptional leader. Terrill was tasked with creating a community engagement program. In less than a year, she has expanded this initiative to more than 40 events annually. Her consistent presence at these events means she is the face of Chandler Recreation in the city. What’s more, Terrill created the Teen Mental Health Summit as a crucial platform for discussing and addressing pressing mental health concerns among local youth.

Adam Trujillo, 29

Activities and Special Events Manager, Harker Heights Parks and Recreation (TX)

Adam Trujillo, activities and special events manager for the City of Harker Heights (Texas) Parks and Recreation, consistently goes above and beyond in creating meaningful experiences for the community. Trujillo transformed what was once an activities center with rental space and occasional programs into a one-stop shop for passive and programmed experiences for all ages. Trujillo also worked with the community to create a “Maker Space,” where families are welcome to participate in various STEAM activities that expand creativity and spark innovation. Although it is still a work in progress, Trujillo turned a simple classroom into a game room for esports, board games and everything in between.

Ashley Turner, APIO, 28

Social Media Manager, Charlotte County (FL)

Ashley Turner’s multifaceted career at the Charlotte County (Florida) Board of County Commissioners showcases her remarkable contributions to the industry. One of her standout achievements is her commitment to knowledge dissemination. Her regular contributions to the field through writing journal articles on topics around AI in parks and recreation and crisis communications demonstrate a dedication to sharing insights and best practices. Beyond the realm of knowledge sharing, Turner’s proactive involvement in disaster response underscores her commitment to service in times of crisis. She recently spent 10 days deployed for Hurricane Idalia. This hands-on experience undoubtedly adds depth to her expertise in emergency management within parks and recreation.

Vitisia Paynich is Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine and NRPA’s Director of Print and Online ContentMichael BiedensteinCPRP, AFO, is NRPA’s Membership Engagement Manager.