Lifetime Achievement

By Fred Engh
Photo Courtest of NAYS

Many years ago, Ken Koonce returned to his hometown of Kinston, N.C., for Christmas, where he received one of the best gifts a recreation professional could ask for—a thank you for a life he impacted through the power of sports.

Walking through a mall one December day, he noticed a tall, well-built young man coming toward him. He learned that the man swam on Ken’s youth team many years before. Ken was stunned by what happened next.

“He proceeded to tell me that it was because of me and the positive things I told him about life, morals, good grades, making something of oneself, and making your parents proud that he went on and graduated high school, went to college and played basketball, was coaching, married, and had two daughters of his own,” Koonce says. “Now he is being a role model.”

Koonce, the Recreation Coordinator/Supervisor of Youth Sports Development for MecklenburgCountyPark and Recreation in Charlotte, N.C., and a Certified Youth Sports Administrator, has influenced countless lives since he began working for the department in the mid-1980s.

“When I turn in my staff shirts and keys, I hope that I’ve left my mark on my profession, that I was a stalwart of the department, and that I was a good steward for the public who paid my salary,” he says. “As I oftentimes tell them, ‘I’m your tax dollars at work!’”

Here’s what else Koonce had to say about the recreation profession he loves so much:

Fred: How have your own youth-sports experiences—both good and bad—affected how you approach your job today?

Ken: Well, it's not a job, it's my profession and having been instructed by some great, and some not-so-good coaches, as well as college recreation professors, I learned: 1) What you put into it, you get out of it; 2) The six Ps: “Prior Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performances” transition from the sports realm to your career and your life; 3) If you wake up and don't look forward to the day ahead—stay in bed; and 4) If you don't love and have fun at what you're doing, it's time to do something else!

Fred: Why are you so passionate about sports and youth programming?

Ken: You’ve heard the term ”gym-rat.” Well, I was a ”rec-center/park rat.” I was at our neighborhood center every day and all day during the summers. My friends and I played on various sports teams, and the coaches and center staff made us feel special. Through our sports experiences, they exposed us to the world outside our community. I hope that during my career my passion has connected with the youth that have participated in our sports programming.

Fred: Did something spark an interest in you as a child that led you down this career path, or was it something later in life that created this interest?

Ken: As mentioned, the rec center was the epicenter of my youth. One day, the pool manager made me a junior lifeguard, and I thought that was so cool. Later, he informed me that if I took the Water Safety Instructor course, I could be a real lifeguard and get paid. I took the course in my freshman year in college and earned the lifeguard job that summer. I realized I was a people person because I enjoyed being around the kids and the rec center, and I loved the environment. Returning to college in the fall, I changed my major to Recreation Administration.

Fred: What’s important points would you stress to someone just starting out in this profession?

Ken: Continue your quest for knowledge. Learn from the ”elder statesmen” in your department. Attend workshops, seminars, and state and national conferences if you can. Join state and national associations. Network outside of your department, for the department doesn’t own the patent on great sports programming.

Fred Engh is founder and CEO of the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS) in West Palm Beach, Fla. He can be reached via email at To join more than 3,000 communities by starting a NAYS chapter, visit or contact Emmy Martinez at or (800) 729-2057.