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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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Gnome Small Feat: A Stewardship Program Gains Traction Using Their Wits, Social Media, and Some Garden Friends

Posted By Amanda Parsons, Tuesday, April 16, 2019
Updated: Tuesday, April 16, 2019

By Amanda Parsons


Marketing requires more than just a good product - you need to stand out from the crowd.  It makes sense, then, that the Lake Oswego stewardship program used their smallest, cutest, friends to get the attention of the community.

Bryant Woods Park

For those who maintain natural areas, it is no surprise that community buy-in is an important aspect to maintain those spaces.  Friends groups and dedicated volunteers are certainly a starting point.  But with volunteers coming and going, and steep competition for their time, a stewardship program must find a way to be seen.

The city of Lake Oswego, Oregon, has a small stewardship program built almost entirely on the strength of its volunteers.  In the off-season, volunteers can be found removing invasive ivy in the various parks around the city.

This tough job leaves only the most dedicated citizens to help with removal.  Often, these volunteers are retirees or older adults.  While the work they do is valued, it begs the question: how do we reach youth to establish a future for stewardship?

“We kept hearing from our volunteers that they needed a time out – that we needed to recruit new families,” said Megan Big John, Crew Leader for Parks and Open Spaces.  “That is how this all started.”

Lake Oswego’s Stewardship program began looking for ways to outreach to the community.  The goals were simple:  Teach people the importance of the work and encourage the next generation to want to participate.

The first step was to take out a newspaper advertisement in the local paper.  Then, the parks graphic designer added a bit of whimsy to the ad.

“It started very grassroots,” claimed Big John.  “A gnome image was included in the newspaper ad about the stewardship program.”

Not originally part of any formal marketing plan, the connection between gnomes and stewardship grew organically.

“Gnomes are such inviting characters, I thought they would make great representation for the division,” said Dave Arpin, the Lake Oswego Parks & Recreation Digital and Graphic Media Specialist and creator of the gnome idea.

Eventually, the gnome concept made its way through the city – in a big way.

“We thought, what can we give away?” said Big John.  “That turned into stickers and then temporary tattoos, all with the gnomes.  Then we started hearing other divisions in the department were asking for these gnomes to give away at concerts and events.  There was this catch.”

From one gnome came three and each character was developed. 

Stewardship Gnomes

Then the stewardship program had an idea.

“In 2017 we had the idea to invite the community members to name the gnomes,” said Babs Hamachek, Lake Oswego Parks Stewardship Coordinator. 

Attending several community events, the team collected 200 entries and a panel of judges selected the winners.

“We celebrated the winners at an event, and each person shared their story for how they came up with their gnome names.” Hamachek said.

Naming the gnomes was a form of community buy-in that resonated with Lake Oswego.  The three gnomes became the mascots of the Lake Oswego Stewardship program.

It also served to increase participation from families in the stewardship program.

“When I go to work parties, I set out the gnomes for the kids.  I teach them about the sword ferns we are planting.  They love it!” Hamachek is grinning as she relays the excitement she sees from children. 

“We also have these discovery buckets,” said Big John.  “They are a sand pail with a spoon, a magnifying glass, a paint brush, a bug catcher… we can have parents participating at the work party and kids can take these tools and start digging in the dirt or looking under a log.”

It seems the stewardship team has thought of everything.  But as time rolled on, the stewardship program faced a problem.

“In the summer, this is the stewardship lull time.  Our work parties don’t occur.  So how do we get people to come out and visit, even if they aren’t volunteers?” asked Big John.

The stewardship program leaned on the success and popularity of the gnomes.  Taking to social media, they announced that the gnomes were hiding in the parks around the city. 

Hamachek spent the summer hiding the gnomes in parks.  A park or trail entrance would include a sign providing information about the gnomes, the stewardship project, and a hashtag to share on social media when a gnome was found.

“It is important to inform,” said Hamachek. “In addition, we would post a sign after the gnomes were moved, ‘the gnomes have roamed’.  It is a soft close so people know to look at the next park.”

And when someone found a gnome?  Take a selfie with the gnome and use #LOparksgnomes on Facebook or Instagram.

A social media campaign not only created awareness about the stewardship program, but it also got people outside and into parks. 

“Inevitably, I would be out in a park, collecting gnomes to move to the next place, and down the trail comes a family with kids.  I’d ask what they’re up to.  And they would say, ‘We’re coming to look for the gnomes, it’s our favorite thing to do.’” Hamachek reflected. 

This story is one of many she could tell about the public relating their familiarity with the gnomes.  Whether it be at a farmer’s market, work party, or out and about, she runs into people who know about the gnomes.

“We used the gnomes to attract ourselves to youth.  Whether it was to get them to come to a work party, or just know about the natural areas,” said Big John

“We know it works!  We’ve seen an uptick in youth at volunteer parties.”

In the end, Lake Oswego ended up with a campaign that both educated the community, got them out into parks, and increased participation in the stewardship program. 

“Getting the attention of these families,” relays Hamachek, “having them discover a new natural area… that is an epic win.”


Read all about the Stewardship Gnomes and check out the fun and interactive website.

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What's She Hiding? Parks and Recreation Employee Makes Residents Hunt for Answers

Posted By Amanda Parsons, Friday, February 15, 2019

By Amanda Parsons


February is decidedly ‘off-season’ in Oregon.  Only the true die-hard, outdoorsy, types make their way through muddy trails in the pouring rain during the few hours of daylight. 

The lack of crowds makes the perfect cover for one Roseburg Parks & Recreation employee.  Velorie Ligon uses this time to hide. 

But she isn’t hibernating.  She is hiding treasures around the city and trails.  Treasures, it turns out, people really want to find.  And she is making them work for it.


(Photo Credit: Visit Roseburg)

Nestled in the Umpqua River Valley in Southern Oregon is the unassuming but charming city of Roseburg.  With a population of fewer than 25,000 residents, Roseburg’s character stems from its sweeping views and proximity to outdoor recreation.  There is no question that an Oregonian looking to explore the outdoors would find inspiring refuge here.

The potential for a good hike isn’t the only reason visitors travel from around the world to see Roseburg.  They are looking for something.   A lot of somethings actually – and Roseburg has hidden them well.

“Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunt using a GPS device or smartphone with an app,” says Velorie Ligon, Recreation Coordinator for Roseburg Parks and Recreation.  “The basic idea is to locate hidden containers called geocaches, located outdoors, and share your experience online.”

Every year Velorie creates caches around the City of Roseburg.  Then, people go looking for them.  This is all part of an effort to get people outside in the off-season – and it is working.

“We usually get between 100 and 125 people at our kick-off event,” says Kris Ammerman, Parks and Recreation Program Manager.  “About 85% of those people are from out of town.”

This year marks the 9th anniversary of an event Roseburg hosts called Discover Roseburg.  Using the parameters of geocaching, Discover Roseburg is an activity that provides players with coordinates to locations around the local area. 

Half of the coordinates are caches, a hidden item and log book to be found using GPS.  The other half are “virtual” and include finding something of value at the location.  Virtual coordinates include historical monuments, local restaurants and shops, and scenic areas.

The first weekend in February, Roseburg Parks and Recreation hosts the “kick-off” event where passports with coordinates are distributed and the search begins. 

The kick-off event also announces the theme for the year.  This year, the theme is Land of Umpqua, honoring the Wild and Scenic River designation of the North Umpqua River. 

“I’ve always wanted to go that direction with geocaches,” said Velorie regarding the theme’s location.  “The North Umpqua trail runs along the river and is a 79 mile trail that is open only for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding.  We are showcasing that as well.”

Besides a beautiful hike in nature, what can participants expect to find?  Geocaching involves hiding an item, typically with a small logbook so hunters can record their find.  But it isn’t easy.

Velorie leans on her creative side when it comes to hiding caches.  “Last year, I passed a gate that had a bunch of locks on it,” she said. “I thought, I’m going to put a fake lock on there!  I approached one of our engineers and told him what I wanted to do and he came up with a lock that is hollowed out inside.”

This challenge may seem almost cruel, but for geocachers, it is exactly the kind of fun they are seeking.

“There is a puzzle element,” said Kris Ammerman, “but it is outside in beautiful or historical areas.”

The virtual caches are a little different.  These caches don’t have a log book.  Instead they direct participants to answer questions about the location.

“One year, we led people to the VA hospital grounds and there is [an MIA war memorial].  I asked a question that prompted people to read the plaques and get a little history,” said Velorie.

Some virtual caches are businesses, such as tourism, or local restaurants.  It encourages people to discover all aspects of Roseburg.

At the end of the day, after a beautiful hike and perhaps a stop in one of downtown Roseburg’s restaurants, participants return to the kick off or City Hall and turn in their passports.

Their reward?  A custom-minted commemorative coin.

“People collect them because they are different every year.  The year we had the shooting [at Umpqua Community College], it was a really sad one, but the coin had the Oregon outline with the heart to represent how the community came together and how much support we had.”

Velorie works with a company every year to create the design of the coins so they appropriately match the year’s theme.

“We order 200 coins and keep giving them out throughout the year as people turn in their passports.” Said Velorie.  As long as they have coins, someone can pick up a passport at city hall.  In fact, many people turn in last year’s passport at the kick-off event.

The kick-off event culminates at the end of the day with a celebration and raffling additional prizes.

Ammerman relays comments from participants, “More than once I’ll hear, ‘I’ve lived here my entire life, yet I never knew… these things were here!’” 

He says residents and non-residents alike enjoy coming to this event and finding something new.  “It is true to its name, Discover Roseburg.”



Velorie shared that the idea for geocaching was not her own, but rather, something she learned about through the City of Lincoln City who also used to have a geocaching event.  This is a perfect example of how we learn from each other.  She is happy to contribute the tradition of sharing information and is available to provide more information about how she plans this event every year.  

You can reach out to Velorie at Roseburg by calling (541.492.6899) or emailing her at

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From Pool to Historic Home: An Oregon City Rock Star Proves Learning Never Stops

Posted By Amanda Parsons, Monday, January 14, 2019
Updated: Friday, January 11, 2019

Let's say your city just spent almost $1 million on restoring the oldest house in the county because of its historical significance.

From a new and permanent location to a full building renovation, the home now boasts renewed life.

There's just one problem. Someone needs to manage it, but no one on the payroll has experience with historic preservation or interpretive planning.

What do you do?

Do you task your Aquatic and Recreation Supervisor with overseeing the grand opening and programming of the new museum?

Probably not. That would be ridiculous.

Of course, that didn't stop Oregon City.

Grand Reopening of Ermatinger House

Last year, Oregon City announced the reopening of a historical landmark.  The Ermatinger House is one of the oldest structures in Clackamas County and has ties to the Hudson’s Bay company and the famous coin toss event that resulted in the naming of the city of Portland. 

In 2011 the house closed due to structural concerns.  As an old house, it needed improvements and restoration.  Roughly $1 million dollars was spent to bring this home back to glory and find a permanent location.

Following restoration, conversations among Oregon City management turned to programming.  The biggest challenge the city faced was that they lacked a historic preservationist or anyone with the background or experience to take on such a project.

“We started to talk about who was going to be ultimately responsible for this house and this program, which is so different than the typical work that recreation professionals do,” said Phil Lewis, Community Services Director for the City of Oregon City. 

Having a historic house under the purview of parks and recreation is not uncommon.  However, without an interpreter or preservationist in the staff, there was less guidance.

Rochelle Anderholm-ParschEnter Rochelle Anderholm-Parsch, the Aquatic and Recreation Supervisor for the City of Oregon City. 

According to Mr. Lewis, “it was very apparent that this would be a prime opportunity for Rochelle to step in with a new team and put together an interpretive plan and a program.”

“When I got the call and they said, ‘what do you think about this?’, I thought, ‘Yes!’” said Rochelle when asked about the assignment.  Her enthusiasm wavered slightly when she hung up the phone and the enormity of the project sunk in. 

Located at the Oregon City Pool, Rochelle manages aquatic recreation, pool maintenance, and community recreation that takes place inside the facility.  Beyond the center, she also manages camps, concerts in the park, movies in the park, and recreational sports.  Between events and programs, Rochelle has several teams she oversees.  It would be a disservice to assume she had spare time on her hands.

She wasn’t deterred.  Faced with another role, Rochelle’s first challenge included balancing her current workload.

“I sat down with the people I work with every day and said, ‘Okay, here’s the deal: I got this awesome opportunity, our department gets to open up this house that has been closed for so long, but I’m gonna have to change some of my work load,’” she tentatively offered. 

The response?  Overwhelming support.  Not only was Rochelle met with a chorus of “yes!”, she received the same support when trying to adjust the budget. 

“We didn’t really have a budget to open [the house],” she said.  “So we identified areas where we could pull money.”  Pulling a little money here and there from programs allowed her to get the budget she needed.  “The whole team said yes to each thing.”

It is no surprise she had such a supportive staff.  Speaking to Rochelle feels like speaking to your most supportive friend.  The one who constantly tells you to follow your dreams and will usually finish with, “how can I help?”

With her current responsibilities looked after, Rochelle began diving into the task at hand.  Without any background or knowledge about programming a historic home, she fell back onto her skill at networking.

“The first thing I did was start calling people I knew outside the agency who have experience,” she said.  Her outreach started with a network she cultivated from her time serving with the Oregon Recreation and Park Association.  “Then I started to meet with anybody and everybody who would meet with me in the community.”  With each call, she met new people and learned names of who to speak with about creating a program.

It didn’t stop there.  Between pouring over the strategic plan for the house, and watching commission meetings from years’ past, Rochelle took it upon herself to investigate the history of both the house and its history in the city. 

“Even though the historic [property] wasn’t something she envisioned herself getting into, it is something she has grown a passion for and wants to see successful,” said Melissa Tierney, a recreation programmer working with Rochelle.  After working together for 11 years, Melissa expressed joy in watching Rochelle take on this new role and get excited about it.

As her research unfolded, she realized the need for an interpretive plan.  An interpretive plan would spell out the mission for the house, topics of each exhibit and what artifacts are displayed.  For this, Rochelle needed a specialist.

“At this point, I had an idea of what the house needed to take it to the next step.  So, I rewrote a recreation programmer job to basically fit into a docent position,” said Rochelle.

Through a nation-wide search, they found Lisa Demarais, a recent graduate from the University of Georgia with a Masters in Historic Preservation.

“I really wanted to work with a town that had strong history and that had a project with an opportunity to grow something, as opposed to entering a house that was already well established,” said Lisa. 

“Lisa said she really wanted to get into policy writing and interpretive plan writing and I thought, okay, you’re perfect,” said Rochelle excitedly.  “Where my limitations are… she has the background.  We can work together.”

The perfect partnership seemed just the ticket as the two worked together toward the grand reopening of the Ermatinger House.  With Lisa managing the details around the house, and Rochelle getting the community involved, both helped restore the home so it could tell a story.

Serving as a museum and marking a time in Oregon City history, the living room of the home is the location of a famous coin-toss.  In 1845, Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove flipped a coin to decide on the name for the city of Portland. 

This historic event was reenacted at the grand opening last July with the descendants from both the families, resulting in a different outcome: naming the city Boston. 

“We had 300-something people come through,” said Lisa, describing her role giving tours and presenting certificates to the descendants of the Ermatinger, Pettygrove, and Lovejoy families. 

“I have no experience planning an event at that scale,” Lisa continued.  “That was all Rochelle.  She has been great.”

“Rochelle has the know-how of putting together an experience for the community and being able to put together the pieces of needs, logistically, as well as physical components in the house to tell the story,” said Phil Lewis. 

Now the home boasts guided tours, a strong volunteer program, and the ability to be continually enjoyed by the public.  The success of which, can be credited to Rochelle.

So what is the secret to her success?

“I just haven’t limited myself to a certain position.  Give me whatever and I’ll figure it out,” she shrugs as if this is simply second nature for her.  It probably is. 

She isn’t a one-woman show, by any means.  But her enthusiasm is contagious.  Rochelle’s unwavering commitment to learn and try new things has resulted in an empowered staff, mirroring her example, and enabling the continued success of Oregon City’s parks and recreation services.

“I am really thankful that she has been the person who has been helping me grow,” said Melissa.

Lisa echoed the sentiments. “She is really good at communicating with me and giving me good feedback.  It has been a really collaborative relationship.”

“Rochelle is a prime example of a professional who does the work we do,” said Phil Lewis, proudly.  “I’m very happy to have her on our team and representing Oregon City in the community.”


What has Rochelle been up to since the Grand Opening?

“I got accepted into the Executive Master’s Degree in Public Administration at Portland State University,” Rochelle says.  She started in September. 

“It has helped me see the bigger picture and what we are to our community.  It is empowering.”

You go, Rochelle!

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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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