Ties That Bind

By Karen I. Shragg

A wise teacher once said she became a better teacher when she stopped teaching subjects and starting teaching children. The same is true in the world of parks and recreation. Our world is about providing connecting experiences in a world that becomes more disconnected with every new-fangled device Apple and Microsoft churn out. In parks and nature centers, we put on events that allow people to meet their neighbors and join them in sleigh rides, Halloween hikes, and maple-syrup events. Having rental spaces in a beautiful setting is a mecca for birthday parties, weddings, and even memorial services. When people have their life celebrations at a park, a deep bond is formed.

I realized long ago, however, that people don’t give parks money for memorials or fundraisers for some kind of altruistic reason; most are generous because they have known someone on staff and developed a relationship with him or her. Perhaps their loved one walked in the park every day and someone smiled or learned of a love of birding. Perhaps a staff member sensed someone was lonely and made sure he or she attended the weekend program in order to find a friend or two. It’s the little things we do in parks and recreation that contribute to the big picture.

Real-Life Participation
Conversations in real time about interesting subjects happen here—no texting allowed. We are one of the last holdouts because we are still a place that wants everyone to come in person. There’s no shopping online for what we have to offer, nor will a drone deliver us to someone’s door. People have to show up and participate in paper-making and plaster track-making classes. They learn through experience, and as a bonus they meet others with similar interests. At our nature center, for example, the environmental book club members have formed friendships and become volunteers at events because they feel they belong to a community.

As someone who spends a great deal of time soliciting prizes and sponsorships for various fundraisers, I often ask myself that, if the money were there, would I want to bother with putting on races and dinners that take so much time and effort? The answer is yes, of course, I would, because fundraising is only one of the objectives of these events. As an industry, we are all about creating spaces in society where people from all income groups and ethnicities can come together in the name of fun, exercise, education, and a celebration of life’s events. We strengthen communities by offering neutral spaces where the people next door are no longer strangers. When an Eagle Scout does his buckthorn-pulling project at a park, we even put up a plaque and offer snacks as well as a place for the award ceremony.

No Barriers
Sure, there are many other chances to get to know one’s neighbors, but a person is often required to first be a member of a religious or political group, or share a certain skill. When it comes to parks and recreation, we just want participants to have fun and maybe learn something, too. We don’t ask about family history or personal beliefs. We are democratic and open to all. And we do our best to keep costs low and offer scholarships so no one is left out.

To be all about relationships, one also has to be about inclusion. How many people can say that in the course of one day they meet, greet, and teach people from infants to seniors of all races and abilities? Parks and recreation programs and facilities not only attract the gamut of people in society, but we go out of our way to develop programs for groups with special needs and hire them through job-training programs. Volunteers quickly become part of the family as we get to know them and let them know we care. As a result of these efforts, we often find ourselves spending spare time at their plays, weddings, and graduations.

Circle Of Friends
I have learned repeatedly how great it is to be in a career that is all about building community. Many of my friends are from work because we are in the job of communicating, and friendship is often the result. When it’s time to ask for volunteers or for people to attend dinners or races, I call my friends. One of my worst memories was the time one of my friends admonished me for not inviting him earlier to an annual fundraising dinner. As he carried out an armful of prizes, he scolded me for waiting so long to invite him. Asking for sponsors is a major undertaking made easier by building relationships. I receive donations from a credit union, auto mechanic, and snowshoe supplier, and in return, I am their loyal customer. We take care of each other. It makes life easier and more connected. I am committed to telling other people about them because I want them to stay in business, too.

Writing articles for PRB also helped me expand my circle of friends. A park and recreation director from Texas called me years ago after reading one of my articles. He asked if I would help him with a nature center he wanted to develop. Of course I said yes, what an honor. We became fast friends based on our mutual desire to provide his community with a unique place to learn about the natural beauty of Port Aransas. I’d like to dedicate this article to the memory of my friend Gary Mysorski, who loved this field. He made me realize how deeply we are connected all over the country with the mutual goals of creating places where relationships are made. Perhaps this article will generate another opportunity to welcome a new friend into my life.

Karen I. Shragg, Ed.D., is a naturalist and manager of the city of Richfield’s Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield, Minn. She earned her doctorate from the University of St. Thomas on the topic, the Benefits of Community-Based Nature Centers. She has been in the field for more than 33 years. Shragg is also an author. Her many books include the Nature’s Yucky children’s picture book series by Mountain Press and Move Upstream: A Call to Solve Overpopulation by Freethought House Press. Reach her at KShragg@cityofrichfield.org.