Mentoring programs help counties develop the next generation of parks and recreation leaders.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2012 print issue with the headline: Growing your own.
Internship programs are sometimes referred to as "grow your own" plans. That sobriquet seems particularly appropriate as some counties develop programs to interest young people in careers in parks and recreation.
A 40-week mentoring program in the Mecklenburg County, N.C.,department focuses on youth ages 14 to 17. In 2012, 20 young people participated, and a graduation in November celebrated their completion of the program. "Staff members were proud to see teenagers who were previously shy and closed off but now had the confidence to speak in front of the group and share their experiences," says Lola Massad, director of Mecklenburg County's Community and Recreation Center Services Division.
The program exposes mentees to various aspects of the county's parks and recreation department, which includes more than 30 indoor recreation and aquaticsand more than 280 parks. In 2013, the program will be expanded with twice as many youth participants.
Complementing the mentoring program in Mecklenburg County are four half-day Saturday group training periods emphasizing topics such as customer service, life skills and an outdoor adventure program. Youth are recruited for the program in December, chosen by facility managers or recreation specialists who will be their mentors. The program begins in February and runs through November.
Participants are paid $7.25 an hour for up to 10 hours a week. Paying the participants ensures a long-term commitment to the program, says Massad. The Mecklenburg County program encourages youth to connect with the community and introduces them to career options in parks and recreation.
Across the country, another program in Los Angeles County, Calif., has similar goals for an older youth group. The Recreation Employment and Achieving Career Happiness (R.E.A.A.C.H) program offers opportunities to LA County youth who are high school juniors and seniors and college freshmen and sophomores.
The summer program includes six weeks of training sessions on Saturdays, covering topics such as work ethic, multicultural understanding and conflict resolution, with extra emphasis on job skills. After training, the participants "shadow" various recreation department employees for 500 hours.
All the time spent in the program, including the training sessions, is paid at $10.78 an hour, the county's minimum for a recreation leader position. After youths graduate from the program, many continue to work part-time with various recreation department programs.
The R.E.A.A.C.H. program encompasses 25 parks and recreation facilities in LA County's Fifth District. The variety of facilities provides a wide choice of experiences for the youth, from working in nature centers, aquatic facilities and lakes to swim beaches, a horse stable and community parks. In the summer of 2012, 85 youths participated in the LA County program, which has been funded for three years at $1.5 million (ending in 2013, but funding could be extended).
The LA County program encourages interest in a parks and recreation career, and about 66 percent of participants continue to work with the rec department after the program is over. "They fall in love with recreation during the summer and change their majors," says Meliza Hernandez, an LA County parks and recreation district manager who operates the program with a small staff made up of program alumni.
Mentoring programs make participants less likely to use drugs, skip class or otherwise cause trouble, according to research by Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Hernandez has seen such benefits from the LA County program.
She mentors youth participating in the program and continues to follow up on their progress and to provide encouragement after the program ends. "I get a lot of letters and emails [from participants] saying I really changed their lives, that I gave them focus, and that no one ever believed in them before," Hernandez says.
Larry Anderson is a Georgia-based freelance writer.