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La Grande Parks & Recreation Department Partners with Local Providers to Reach Out to Underserved Youth

Posted By Amanda Parsons, Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Written By: Stu Spence, Parks & Recreation Director, La Grande Parks & Recreation


In 2016, an amazing partnership was formed that made a connection with kids in the very rural parts of Union County to get them to La Grande to attend Spring Break Camp.  Over the last four years, over 70 kids have attended with no cost to the parents.  Now the program is being expanded to not only engage those kids for a week during Spring Break, but several other times this summer.



As a sector member of the Union County Safe Communities Coalition, the Parks & Recreation Department developed a partnership with Union County CARE (Community Access for Resource Effectiveness) who works closely with low income and at-risk families through local school districts connecting them to basic services in the community. 

For parks and rec, Spring Break Camp participation was waning and the department was looking for ways to increase attendance. 

Through a series of conversations facilitated by the Director of the Safe Communities Coalition, several different partners were mobilized to put a plan into action.  CARE had families in the outlying areas of the County that needed child care during spring break.  Many of these parents battle poverty and addiction and live 20 – 30 miles from La Grande.



Through the network of the Union County Safe Communities Coalition which is funded through the National Drug Free Communities Support Program several barriers were broken down. 

The Coalition had funding to pay for the kids to go, CARE identified the families most in need, and the Parks & Recreation Department provided transportation and discounted the weekly rate by 25%, and Grande Ronde Hospital provided everyone in the program a healthy lunch.

Since its inception, these partnerships have made a profound impact on these families.  “We’ve found that removing the barriers of cost, transportation, and food, we are able to serve families that need us the most,” Stu Spence, Parks & Recreation Director said. 

Spence continued, “The best feeling is walking into camp and seeing the smiles and enjoyment on their faces just playing like normal kids.  Since these kids are from the outlying areas, other kids don’t know their situation and they are able to participate without judgement or ridicule.”

McKayla Nitz, La Grande’s Recreation Supervisor brags of the program saying, “Most don’t leave their town and ask if we are going to the city when they are on the ½ hour van ride into town.”  She said that it’s a little sad that they think La Grande is the City, but many of the children don’t get out of their little area. 

“Several comment on how fun the hikes are because they never get to do that,” she said. 

She is also thankful the kids come smelling like cigarette smoke leave smelling clean due to all the outdoor activities they get to experience.

Sherlyn Roberts, Union County CARE Coordinator is thankful for the program saying that some of these kids don’t get to interact with caring adults because their parents are caught up in their own “drama” or are constantly on their phones. 

In one case she shares, “a little boy and his family was on the run from Child Protective Services in Idaho after going all winter without running water in their home.  These kids are so resilient, but we have to provide programs like this where they feel normal and interact with normal kids and normal adults.” 

She goes on to say, “Providing transportation and meals is huge.  Many of these kids during school breaks don’t get breakfast and lunch since the school normally provides them.”  In one case she had a parent complain about the inconvenience of getting her child up in the morning to catch the van to La Grande. 



Since this program has been so successful over the last few years, another partner has jumped in, Soroptimist of La Grande has now taken over the funding for registrations and transportation allowing the Parks & Recreation Department to expand into summer programs.

We won’t know the outcome of our efforts for potentially years, but providing positive engaging activities is playing a major role in the resiliency of these kids.  They are getting exposed to activities they never get to do because they can’t afford them.  They are learning new games, going new places, and making new friends. 

But perhaps, most importantly they feel equal and not less than their peers.

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