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Stitching Together a Community: How a Quilter's Group is more than a Senior Center Activity

Posted By Amanda Parsons, Tuesday, August 21, 2018

A senior center may conjure up the idea of a quiet space where the elderly share grandchildren trading cards and take long naps.  It serves the older adult community through lunch and a lending library.

But imagine, for a moment, that the septuagenarian entering the doors has no interest in playing bridge.  Instead, the center is her base of operations to carry out a mission geared toward social justice and child welfare.  She is a caped crusader, among a network of venerable matriarchs and armed with scraps of fabric.  She is a five-foot-nothing heroine.  She is a quilter.

Quilter Group

Now, a quilting group at a senior center may not seem like anything new – but a quilter has the power to have a profound impact on the community at-large.

This was made obvious to me when I met Mary Parish, the spritely and affable, unelected rotational leader, of Comforts for Children.  Comforts for Children (CFC) is a not-for-profit quilting group that serves the community by donating quilts to more than 10 recipient agencies who serve at-risk kids.  They take residence in Eugene’s Campbell Community Center.

“It gets me out of the house,” said Mary simply.  “It is an outlet for creativity, and it is cleaner than gardening.”

Mary has been quilting with the group for over 16 years, or so she says.  She admitted she has lost track.  The social aspect, for her, is a big part of why she is involved.

There is a job for everyone who wants to help.  For some in the group, cutting pieces for quilts is their focus.  For others, they prefer to sew. 

A quilter from the end of the room chirped up, “Often times a quilt will be finished by 4 of us.” 

Mary says she likes picking out the colors and putting together the design.  In her hands she held a square of fabric with a sea turtle against a turquoise watery backdrop.  “I want to find something nice to go with the turtles” she offered.

Not everyone in the group can physically make it quilting hours.  And they’ve thought of that.

“We want to be a part of the community.  That is why Jean started making kits” explained Mary.  Jean Liittschwager, founder and program director for many years, developed “kits” of precut quilting squares, a design, and instructions.  Visitors or groups could come and “check out” a kit, which they would sew in their own time and return the finished product to the group as a donation. 

Besides the ability to reach a community of seniors, the kits also enabled CFC to offer basic supplies and instructions to children’s groups and schools.

“I’ve always wanted to teach quilting,” said Mary.  “And when the kids make them, they are so cool!”

Now, school children are participating in the cycle of service to the community through the quilting program.  But this isn’t the only way in which the quilter group is extending beyond the walls of the center.

“The purpose is to give them away,” said Mary, “from birth to 17 years old.  But we mostly make baby quilts.”

And give away they do!  As of July 31st, CFC has distributed 32,881 quilts.  Since inception in 1991, that averages 100 quilts a month.  Of those, a couple are selected to be sold publicly.  The money generated goes to help purchase batting for the quilts and any necessary sewing machine maintenance.  Almost all the other fabric used is donated.

 “We get a lot of demand for boy’s quilts.  Always boy’s quilts” harrumphed Mary.  “But keep in mind, it’s little old ladies making these quilts.  We like making girls things!” 

Mary then recalled a recent donation request they received to make 18 full twin-sized quilts for a group of unhoused, high school girls.  She sighed fondly at the memory, expressing the joy of making what she called “girly quilts”. 

In this, and many other cases, the quilters are not donating to just a shelter or hospital – they know who will receive the quilts.  The quilts are made with the recipient in mind.

When asking Mary about any other donations that stood out, she said, “last year we donated two quilts to Syrian Refugees at the airport.”

No further description was provided.  None was needed.  The impact of that statement was enough to realize that the work these women do is important to them.

How is it possible that this group is able to rally to a cause so easily, for so many years, and be so productive?  The answer might just be the community center itself.

“There is no downside to having this kind of program in the community,” said Diane Sconce, Recreation Manager for the Campbell Community Center.  “One limitation, however, would be space.  It would be difficult for them to haul their machines here and back every Thursday, and their material in and out.  So we allow them storage space.  That is their room.”

The Campbell Community Center experiences a drought of storage space.  (My understanding is that “More Storage” is the uniting call of senior center managers everywhere.)  Therefore, providing the space is no small feat.

The Center also posts information about the quilting group in their program guide.  This draws in new people, but even allows other visitors to observe and feel connected to the group.  “It is a social outlet for them and the other people in the center because people wander in and out to see what they are working on” said Sconce.

“It is a feel good program because they are doing good work for the community,” expressed Sconce.  “And it is a mutually beneficial relationship.”

There is a lesson we can take away from this relationship.  As our population ages, the demand for spaces such as the Campbell Center continues to grow.  Our programs do not exist in a vacuum.  We have the opportunity to make a lasting effect in our world.  Older adults want to be active, social, and serve the community.

In an effort to serve the older adult population through the provisioning of a space for quilting, the Campbell Community Center has indirectly improved the lives of children in Lane County. 

And it isn’t as hard as it seams. 


  Sample Quilt

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Telling Stories: The Secret to Tom O'Rourke

Posted By Amanda Parsons, Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Tom O'Rourke

For the last few months, people have been telling me how great Tom O’Rourke is.  I’ve heard that he is passionate, powerful, engaging, and friendly.  I’ve also heard he is clever, kind, and successful.  It was made clear to me that this man is a Legend. 

His vocal fan base is the reason we asked him to be our keynote speaker at this year’s ORPA Annual Conference.  (Spoiler: He said ‘Yes’)

From all the hype, I was understandably nervous when I called up the famous Tom O’Rourke to request an interview.  For someone so popular, I expected I’d have to convince him to sit down with me.  And that I would have to fight his calendar for 30 minutes of his time.

Instead, a friendly voice drawled through the receiver, “I am so excited to be visiting Oregon.  I’d love to chat.”

That was the start of me understanding what everyone was talking about.  The Tom O’Rourke everyone knows and loves. 

Tom is warm, open, and honest.  He is laid-back and approachable.  We talked about his life in parks and recreation, new plans, past successes, and what he will bring to Oregon.  From the very beginning he made the interview feel like two friends catching up.

It was a shame, then, that I had to ruin it by addressing the elephant in the room: Tom’s recent split from Director’s School.

“I was a teacher at Director’s School for a long time.  Here is what it does that is really good.  It connects people.” Tom said.  “You are going to run into 3 or 4 people that you really connect with and then you stay with them for the rest of your professional life.  And if it wasn’t for Director’s School, that wouldn’t happen.”

After a long pause he admitted, “I’m different.  I say things I shouldn’t say.”  I imagine this is a built-in disclaimer that Tom has honed to prepare new acquaintances with his South Carolinian mannerisms.  But he then disclosed, “I thought there needed to be some real hard looks into the curriculum.

“What we need to be teaching directors is how to fight with elected idiots.  Those are the skills they need to be armed with.  Where do you go when the answer is no?  That’s a class!”  

“It sounds like you have ideas for great curriculum,” I said, “where are you taking it?”

“I’ve been fortunate to be asked by state associations to put together some unique and different training programs that will really get directors to a place where they need to be going, with real world stuff.”  He got excited and continued, “Political environments are horrible, nobody’s got any money, and the public is so damn demanding it is hard to get out of bed in the morning.  So how do you deal with that?”

I should note, the Oregon Recreation and Park Association is not currently working with Tom O’Rourke to develop a training program, but don’t be surprised if we start!

“In addition to working with states and traveling while speaking, you are also working as a Professor of Practice at Clemson University.  What do you teach?” I inquired.

“It is interesting how that came about,” he started.  “What universities need, they need someone who has gotten out in the field and gotten dirty.  So, they allowed me and their faculty to assist in developing a certificate type program [through the] Department of Parks Recreation and Tourism Management.  I think it is a great thing to have, and luckily, with distance education, anyone could take this graduate level program and never have to come to campus.”

I mentioned that many people will be happy to have this option, since we don’t have a parks and rec degree in Oregon.  Tom brushed the comment off.  “You know what else isn’t a bad idea?  If state associations could say, ‘You know, it’s not really about the kind of degree you get.  It’s about the knowledge.’” Despite working to develop a certificate program, his point was clear: experience trumps all.

“When I travel around and speak, I’m not trying to educate you.  I’m trying to jump into your soul and grab it!  I’m trying to change who you are, not what you do.” His voice resonated through the phone with conviction. If we were speaking face to face I’m sure he would have grabbed me and shaken me, in an attempt to rattle passion to the surface. 

It probably works.

What I was starting to figure out about Tom was that he wants to leave a legacy of empowering people to improve parks and recreation.  And as it turns out, it is all parks and recreation.

“To me, parks and recreation is almost like a state of mind.  You’ve got parks, which are places you do things.  And then you’ve got recreation, which is the thing that you do.  And honestly, you could convince me that everything you do outside of work could fall some way into parks and recreation.”

“The passion you have for parks and recreation couldn’t be an accident.  How did you fall into this career field?” I inquired.

“My father was the recreation director of the community I grew up in.” he said.  Apparently it runs in the family.  “My father’s jurisdiction had about 5,000 people in it.  I work for Charleston County Parks where we serve 300,000 people.  What my father did, and what I do, are the exact same thing.  We make people’s lives better.”

Tom described the work his father did, especially as it compares to his own work.  Most striking was the fact that he didn’t describe it as work, as a job, or even as a career.  Over and over again in his stories, he described it as serving people.  As changing people.  As enabling them to do anything thing they put their mind to.

Even pole vaulting.

“For the last 10 years or so, I’ve been coaching track and field, and mostly pole vaulting” he drawled casually. 

For a moment I was caught off guard by how easy it sounded.  I thought, ‘maybe pole vaulting is something different in the South?’ 

Tom clarified, “this is an event where the majority of people who see it say, ‘Holy crap! Is that hard?’ But if you start with step one and work your way up, it’s really not that hard at all.  I could teach anyone to pole vault.  Anybody.”

Then Tom wove a touching story about a boy who lacked athletic prowess and the confidence to amount to anything in the bizarre sport of pole vaulting, but who, with Tom’s coaching (and personal brand of frankness) was able to realize victory and develop a sense of self-worth. 

When Tom tells a story you are enraptured.  From beginning to end he makes you invested in the success of the people in the story.  He hooks you with the allure of triumph.  Ultimately, you walk away with a desire for him to teach you, too.

I asked him about working with adults – professionals in parks and recreation.

“There is no difference.” He said flatly.  “Not a damn bit of difference.  You don’t think 50-year-old men have confidence problems?  Everybody has the same issues, we just use different techniques to get there.

I teach this class, Becoming a Better Me” – (side note: this class is at conference this year!) – “and at the end of the day I ask, ‘Why are you here?  Why do you breathe when you get up in the morning?’  And if you can find that answer then you are going to be just fine.  Then I teach you how to feed it when you find that answer.”

His emphasis on interpersonal skills, self-reflection, and uncovering a passion, all play an important role in success in the industry.

“The truth is,” he sighed, “these are hard jobs.  People are laying people off and there is no money.”  He took a deep breath.  “Instead of being laid off because there is no money, how do you be the person who walks into your director’s office and says, ‘Listen, here is what we are going to do.  I don’t need money.  I’ve got sponsorship to pay for this, and this, and this.’  And that is how it all changes.”

Of course, the confidence is half the battle.  Where do parks and recreation professionals get the money? 

“It seems like we are all in the same boat, looking for money,” I appealed.  “How do we get good at securing it?”

Tom laughed and I could almost hear the nod on the other end of the phone. “I’m in South Carolina, the reddest of the red states.  The most conservative, no taxes place you’ve ever been to.  Our budget is $44 million, and we get $9 million in tax money.”

Immediately my stomach dropped at the thought of hardship his county must endure to keep the doors open.

He continued smoothly, “So, I’ve got to raise over $30 million a year in fees.  And actually, we do it.  And we do it kinda easily.”

This is where Tom’s involvement in the Parklands Foundation of Charleston County comes into play.  The Parklands Foundation is a way for the county to raise money that not only provides services, but allows access to everyone, despite ability to pay fees.

At this point Tom became distracted telling an amazing, and tear-jerking, story about how the tragic drowning of a child prompted the building of a new pool.  It served as parable for the importance of funding recreation, especially in low-income communities.

“Here’s the thing,” I could hear Tom gearing up for an impassioned declaration. “I couldn’t go to bed at night if we were only an agency for people with money.  I couldn’t do it!  We serve everyone.  Everyone!”

He makes it sound like a wonderful utopia surviving against all untaxed odds.  But it still begs the question – how does he raise the money?

“You’ve got to have a story.  It’s got to be real, and you have to be able to explain it.” 

His answer should come as no surprise.  He had just spent the morning telling me story after story illustrating why parks and rec is important.  Tom has a way of easily making the connection between parks and rec and the health, happiness, confidence, and success of people served.  His success as an advocate comes from an innate understanding of how to frame issues and tug on heart strings.

The secret to Tom’s success in parks and recreation is the same thing he is trying to impart to everyone he meets.  He is a master story teller, and he is coming to Oregon this fall to help all of us become better story tellers, too.

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Trash Can Project Isn't Rubbish: Astoria Park & Recreation Saves Money and Engages Community

Posted By Amanda Parsons, Tuesday, July 10, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, July 17, 2018

"We are very excited about the program,” rang the cheerful voice of Angela Cosby, Astoria Park & Recreation Director.  “We have redesigned all of our trash cans,” she said, “they are very cool.” 

Most people would be skeptical of someone who refers to trash cans as “cool.” Most people would be right.  But this story isn’t about trash cans.  Or rather, not just about the 42 new trash cans in Astoria, Oregon. 

This story is about how a small parks and recreation department saved money, developed private partnerships, and worked with stakeholders to design and implement a program as effective as it is aesthetic. 

“This project was one of the many steps we took in trying to balance out our resources vs. requirements” said Cosby.  In 2018, Astoria Parks & Recreation did some careful reevaluation of their services.  As with any organization going through lean process improvement, they looked at the small tasks as well as the larger programs. 

“It is an essential part of any maintenance program to get garbage out of parks,” said Jonah Dart-Mclean, Parks Maintenance Supervisor.  According to him, park staff were spending almost 16 hours a week emptying garbage cans.  “This is a significant amount of time for our parks maintenance staff, which is already pretty limited.”

The time spent on emptying garbage wasn’t the only problem, however.  “One of the issues with [the previous garbage cans] was that they had a larger orifice so people could put large bags of garbage into them and overfill them” said Dart-Mclean.  The construction of the cans, as well as overuse, resulted in damage and undue wear over the years.

“We started looking for ways to partner with different agencies to become more efficient” said Cosby.  Working with city council, Astoria updated a franchise agreement with Recology, a recycling and waste removal company, to include the emptying of garbage cans in all Astoria’s city parks.  Astoria residents will see an average rate increase of 50 cents, which covers the collection of all garbage in the parks – a small price to pay for beautiful green spaces. 

“We knew it took our staff more time than it would have taken Recology, who are already out and about with the right equipment, like a garbage truck,” said Cosby.  She emphasized the reduction in risk of injury playing an important role in the decision.

According to Scott Miethe, Operations Supervisor for Recology, the impact on his team was relatively low.  “This added 42 more stops to one driver on Monday and Friday.  It isn’t a burden because 42 cans aren’t much for us.  It is only about half an hour to an hour.”

Some changes needed to be made to the trash cans, however.  “In order for Recology to be able to collect garbage, they needed the efficiency of actually having a cart,” said Cosby.  This cart would be familiar to any Astoria resident as it is the same used at home.  However, while the wheels on the cart are convenient for a homeowner, it posed a problem in a park setting.

In order to keep the cans in place around the park, and make sure they were used appropriately, Astoria began working on designing enclosures for the carts. 

The first step of this process was making sure the enclosures served well in function.  Miethe provided the carts.  “I worked with [Dart-Mclean] to make sure the plans would work, that the cans were the right size to fit them.”  In addition to providing the cans and dimensions, Miethe was available during the design process to double check the enclosures would work for his team during collection.

The inside of the enclosure included a locking mechanism to help prevent dumping.  When asked if this was a challenge, Miethe remained relaxed.  “The locking mechanism is a bit different than we are accustomed to, but it totally works.”

In addition to the functionality, Astoria Parks and Recreation was committed to making sure the design was a reflection of the city.  The second step of this process could be described as a master class in stakeholder involvement.

Instead of building a standard enclosure (or purchasing one from a manufacturer), Astoria took this opportunity to engage members of the community.

“One of the challenges was trying to find a common aesthetic goal and getting everyone to agree to design aspects.” said Dart-Mclean.  “Also, we have a variety of areas, such as our river walk which has one type of view and aesthetic, and then our playground areas and historic parks. We tried to find a design that would mesh for all those different use types.”

Astoria Parks and Recreation turned to Historical Preservationist John Goodenberger to provide insight into the design process. 

“I’m kind of the old man of city hall,” said Goodenberger, “not because I’m the oldest person at city hall but because I can remember the 90’s when we talked about protecting the waterfront.  And during the 1990’s we came up with the Robert Murase Plan.”

Robert Murase, a landscape architect, was most notable for his work on the Japanese American Historical Plaza in Portland, Oregon, the Garden of Remembrance in downtown Seattle, and the Astoria Waterfront Redevelopment.  Murase’s design was heavily influenced by Japanese gardens and often used stone compositions and water elements.

According to Goodenberger, Murase saw the natural beauty in Astoria.  “He came and said, ‘Have a light touch to the waterfront, it is really something special.  When you add something to the waterfront, don’t make it noticeable, don’t call attention to it – just let it blend in as you might a Japanese landscape.”  Goodenberger, who also teaches at Clatsop Community College in the Historic Preservation and Restoration program, sees it as part of his job to remind citizens of Astoria of the commitment to the Murase plan.

This perspective played an important role in designing the trash can enclosures.  “Rather than have something nice and shiny and new, and that would be beautiful, I’m sure, we decided to do something that was more reflective of Astoria.  This is a little bit harder edge, a little more industrial, and has a little bit of rust on it,” Goodenberger noted.

For this look, Astoria turned to Steel and Timber, a construction and fabrication company based in Oregon.  Steel and Timber worked within the area to collect recycled materials from old buildings.

“All the materials that were used were locally sourced and reused.  The sheet metal is from a barn in the Jewell area that was donated and cut into the roof and sides of the receptacles.  All the wood is old growth Douglas Fir from a warehouse that was being demolished in town,” said Dart-Mclean.  He expressed having fun working as an intermediary between design and function.

From a historical context, Goodenberger is pleased as well.  “Historic preservation is recycling an entire piece of architecture of the next generation and we took that thought and incorporated it in the garbage cans… It has this kind of deterioration and patina.  Certainly Astoria and its waterfront has that patina and we wanted that to come into play.” 

More than just trash cans, this project represents both a reflection of the past and hope for the future.  “We are hoping to be more sustainable throughout the years” said Cosby in reference to managing resources.

“I really cannot overstate the value in not having to be responsible for emptying the garbage cans through the parks” said Dart-Mclean.  The reduction in staff time for garbage collection can now be redirected toward other park projects. 

And what about the residents?  “[Cosby says] the community has been very responsive to it in a positive way.  It tends to fit in,” said Goodenberger.  He believes the design plays an important role in the appeal.  “It’s kind of low tech, it is industrial.  It is rustic with patina.  If you were to ask people to describe our community, they might use different words, but it would all be the same kind of concept.  We value the fact that this not a pristine, shiny, town.  We like the fact that it is a little bit rough on the edges.”

Astoria expects to have all trash cans deployed by the end of July.  They will be placed across all their parks and along the waterfront.  

Tags:  Astoria  Park Projects  We Are ORPA 

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