Here, recreation centers share how they are reconnecting their communities after the pandemic through unique youth programs.
During the pandemic, recreation centers across the globe worked hard to keep their communities connected. And with one of the most vulnerable populations in mind — children — these centers never stopped striving to provide the necessary educational, engaging and social components that were hindered over the last year and a half.
At the City of Sioux Falls, Eric Saathoff, the recreation program coordinator, said the key to planning youth programs is to always be changing things up. Even if it’s a small change, it can make a program feel new and exciting.
For example, Storyland Children’s Theater is a popular program at Sioux Falls currently in season 31 of production. The program is presented by theater staff employed by the department and produces eight productions during the summer months, free and open to children of every age.
“By using skits familiar — and not so familiar — these shows focus primarily on children’s stories, beliefs and everyday happenings,” said Saathoff. “They involve fairytales, music characterizations, costumes, dance and the audience. Each summer, the cast look at new ways to engage kids with new stories to tell.”
Along with being flexible, Saathoff shared partnerships are also instrumental to successful youth programs. “Many of our successful programs happen in partnership with other agencies and organizations,” he said. “These partnerships help to grow the program — both with support as well as word of mouth — which may not always happen if a parks and recreation department is doing it on their own.”
One of these successful programs is a partnership among Sioux Falls Parks and Recreation, Sioux Falls Police Department and Sioux Falls Fire Rescue to host hydrant block parties — six events held throughout the summer in various neighborhoods.
“Siouxland Libraries and Sioux Falls Health Department also provide enhancements to the program,” added Saathoff. “Kids and their families enjoy games and dancing in the street, while Sioux Falls Fire Rescue sprays their hoses to keep people cool in the warm July and August sun.”
Sioux Falls isn’t the only recreation center to put an emphasis on changing things up. Ronn McMahon, the president and CEO of the Greater Wichita YMCA, said the world has changed forever, and recreation centers need to be creative in how they serve kids now more than ever.
“I think coming out of the pandemic is going to force us to look hard at what we offer and change a little bit of the things we’ve done for years,” said McMahon. “They might not be the things of the future.”
And one of those changes the Greater Wichita Y made was offering a new way to engage the community with YMCA360. The virtual program offers exclusive classes — from yoga to youth sports — in on-demand and livestream options to YMCA members.
Having a virtual option to keep the community connected during the pandemic was necessary, especially when it came to engaging youth.
“During the pandemic, YMCA360 provided community and a touch point for a friendly face on the screen,” said Dan Dieffenbach, the YMCA360 executive producer. “It created digital partnerships that for years the gaming community has been trying to tell us is real — kids can have real partnerships to hit up through a digital community.”
With this digital extension, Dieffenbach emphasized the opportunity to meet kids where they already are – online. Some of the classes offered for youth on the platform include:
While it seems everyone embraced digital in one aspect or another this past year, Dieffenbach shared how YMCA360 is bridging human and digital touch. “I think the Y now has the opportunity as members start coming back to make that connection,” he said. “It’s not all about staying home and streaming. It’s bringing people and kids back to be confident, to be with others, to have that true sense of community as well as offering them the option to have a community digitally.”
Being able to offer an assortment of youth programs is a first step to keeping communities engaged, and Al Goldberg, the marketing and communications director at the YMCA of Superior California, added recreation centers also need to gain parent and community trust when it comes to in-person programming again.
During the pandemic, the YMCA of Superior California continued to keep its doors open for essential and emergency child care. Goldberg said by being vigilant and staying updated on all guidelines, the Y worked to not only educate and train staff, but also to educate parents and earn their trust.
“One of the successes to keeping the doors open here is parents knowing they can trust us to keep their kids and family safe, and creating a fun environment kids want to keep returning to,” said Goldberg. “It’s knowing and listening to your community and looking at your social media responses, reading what people post online such as in the Nextdoor website and looking for programs for kids. Even then, it’s looking at other organizations and seeing what they’ve had success with.”
Goldberg emphasized members of the community are looking for ways to reconnect and socialize. As community leaders, if organizations put their best effort into a program that helps kids be active and healthy, the community will respond well.
“I think most parents have been at least responsive and very grateful for the opportunity to find places that gets their kid socializing and having fun again,” he said. “It’s been a difficult year. Even making the effort to do whatever you can will probably be well received.”