The Strategy Of Staying Power

By Faith Gregor

Recreation programming is a balancing act—keeping up with trends without investing too heavily in the trendy, finding new energy for long-term programs, standing out without spending a fortune, etc.

Apex Park and Recreation District (PRD), located in the northwest Denver suburb of Arvada, Colo., has served its community since 1956, so the district has had plenty of opportunities to meet various programming challenges.

A glance at the district’s 1975 activity guide, in comparison with the current guide, attests to the staying power of popular seasonal programs, including track and field, junior golf, and summer camps.

For Apex PRD, the most influential, cost-effective, and reliable predictor of success is dedicated and knowledgeable staff members who are passionate about their program and the students. The district has been conscientious in hiring a high-caliber staff, and fortunate that many of them return year after year.

Seriously Interested In Children
Such is the case in the district’s summer day camp for 7- to 12-year-olds, headquartered at Secrest Youth and Teen Center. Gaby Garcia, the 2015 camp director, started working for the district in 2009 when she was 18 years old. She’s funny, energetic, and intuitive about kids of all ages, and she cites “education by Secrest” as one of her main strategies for quality interaction with the campers, teens, and toddlers who frequent the facility.

The summer day camp has filled to capacity with a waiting list for the past several years. Denver has many choices for summer camps—around 500 in the metro area—so standing out in a crowd that large is no small feat. Economic ups and downs, greater interest in specialized camps, heightened parent expectations, and an ever-growing number of choices have challenged the district to compete harder. But stressing its high-quality, loyal staff members, and variety of activities proved to be the simplest and best solution. The 2015 summer-camp sellouts, combined with returning staff and stringent hiring guidelines, can be attributed in large part to the camp’s philosophy, which appears in the annual activity guide: “Why choose us? Most importantly, we are sincerely interested in your child.”

Showing Enthusiasm
The Junior Golf program at Indian Tree Golf Club has operated under a similar philosophy since the program began more than 40 years ago under former golf director Vic Kline. Currently, the program is thriving under the direction of Rudy Castaneda, Assistant Operations Manager and P.G.A. Head Professional. The program has won several awards since its inception, including one in 2015 for Castaneda—the Colorado P.G.A. Youth Player Development Award.

This program fills up quickly with a waiting list every year, thanks to the enthusiasm of the staff. As at the Secrest summer camp, many instructors return each year. Castaneda stresses the importance of direct interaction with young golfers, encouragement, fun, and social skills.

“We are successful because the kids have fun, and they want to come back. If they learn, great, but in golf, success comes gradually. It starts with ‘I hit it, it went up in the air, and it was fun.’”

The instructional style at Indian Tree focuses on one-on-one, meaningful interaction. “We have the kids tell us what they learned today. Two-way communication makes it stick,” Castaneda explains. That takes a commitment from staff to be engaged with a genuine passion for the sport and the kids they teach.

Castaneda attributes the program’s consistent success over the years to an ability to encourage the kids to learn the game and keep playing. He makes regular visits to area public schools throughout the year because more and more high schools include golf in their physical-education curriculum. On the flip side, many other activities compete for kids’ attention. “There are so many things going on, including multiple sports, and time is the biggest constraint. Sometimes there is also the perception that golf takes too long and is too hard to learn.”

That concern is best addressed by spending a little time watching a Junior Golf lesson. “Parents see their kids having fun, and see the staff being excited, enthusiastic, and involved. For the kids, we reach out, smile, and give them a word of encouragement. Kids appreciate that. They can tell that you are into it.”

Maintaining staff quality, emphasizing a one-on-one experience, keeping it fun, interesting, varied, and simple have kept the program’s numbers healthy. Enrollment has increased about 15 percent in the past few years, Castaneda says.

In 2015, the program included a number of veteran instructors and several alumni juniors who came up through the program.

Giving Kids Confidence
The same elements apply to the summer track and field program, which has several coaches who first experienced the activity as preschoolers. Every summer, the youth track program has routinely drawn at least 300 participants from ages 3 to 16.  For the 24 coaches in the current program, the most important thing to offer was their love for the activity and a desire to inspire kids to be part of future generations of runners. One coach’s advice was to be as silly as possible. “When we get out there and embarrass ourselves, the kids can relax a little and feel more self-confident,” the coach says.

Kids often are unsure and struggle to meet their own self-imposed tough standards, the group explains. Coaches try to emphasize successes and build skills so kids return to the sport in school or during the following summer. “Our goals are getting everyone to participate, and above all, we want them to have fun and forget they are running and getting exercise.”

One coach, since the age of 3, had been in the track program, and many others were participants in the youth program, as well as in their high school and college track programs. Most of the coaches are still in their teens, yet they bring multiple years’ experience to the job. Best of all, they are eager to share their knowledge, passion, and companionship with their students every summer.

Finding The Right Staff Members
There are many other examples of programs in the district that thrive because of excellent staff. Emphasis on this all-important quality extends throughout all of  the programs. The proof lies in the results of various surveys distributed by the district, in which employee knowledge and courtesy rank consistently high. These assets support a more overarching goal of the district: changing lives every day and making them better.

Cindy Midyett, Apex PRD’s Human Resources Administrator, summarizes the district’s strategy for quality hiring: “We always try to hire the right person for the job. This takes some time up front during recruiting and interviewing. But if you have the right people on your team, it makes the whole team stronger. If you have a strong team, you have a strong organization. Your employees are happy, which makes your guests happy. When your guests are happy, they tell others. When your employees are happy, they tell others, which helps to increase your whole pool of potential employees.”

Faith Gregor is the Communications Coordinator for the Apex Park and Recreation District in Arvada, Colo. Reach her at