Unplug & Reconnect with the Batavia Park District
Batavia Park District Executive Director Allison Niemela.
by Ben Scott
The Batavia Park District is the perfect place for you to “unplug” and be healthy. The Unplug Illinois campaign, with its tagline “What’s Your Outlet,” invites residents in communities like Batavia to stop and consider the value of resources provided by the park district.
“What we want people to do is unplug from the daily grind and look up from where they’re currently at, look at the resources around them and utilize them,” said Batavia Park District Executive Director Allison Niemela. “We want people to get out in the fresh air and take a one mile walk. Explore the board walk around the Riverwalk, test out the bike paths—really take advantage of the areas that are given to you that you’re surrounded by.”
With over 350 acres of land, 40 parks and year-round recreational programming, the Batavia Park District offers residents many opportunities to unplug from their daily routine, spend time in nature and participate in healthy lifestyle activities. But do most people really understand the value of the park district? Do Batavians truly appreciate all of the ways they interact with park district services and programming on a daily basis?
These were the questions Niemela started asking herself in 2013. At the time, she was serving as Chairman of the Board for the Illinois Park and Recreation Association (IPRA), an organization that provides education and resources to professionals in the Illinois park, recreation and conservation communities.
“IPRA Executive Director Debbie Trueblood had it in her work plan goals to create a brand new strategic plan for the IPRA,” Niemela said.
Trueblood and Niemela conducted 14 focus groups with Park and Recreation professionals throughout the entire state of Illinois to find out what the association could do to make their jobs better.
“The resounding results were consistent,” Niemela said. “How do we tell the story of parks and recreation? How do we make parks and recreation relevant?”
Towards this end, Trueblood asked Niemela to spearhead a community campaign task force to respond to the needs of IPRA members. The end result was the birth of the Unplug Illinois campaign and a transformation kit equipped to provide the resources, tools and inspiration communities need to communicate the value of parks and recreation.
“There is a proven disconnect between our elected officials at the State and Federal level and what park and recreation agencies do,” Niemela said. “So really, the first step in this campaign was having the IPRA members purchase this kit and utilize the facts and statistics and predesigned ads to put in their brochures to really get the word out.”
Despite the campaign’s buzzword, Niemela said Unplug is not strictly about pushing an anti-tech agenda.
“Unplug is not about technology necessarily because technology can be good for recreation. Geocaching and Pokemon Go, for example—we want people out in the parks and they have to use technology to do these things.”
However, Niemela and other parks and recreation professionals do want to draw attention to the negative health effects of a sedentary lifestyle. According to statistics in the Unplug Illinois Transformation Kit, nearly 1/3 of Americans are clinically obese, and researchers predict that by 2018 obesity-related illnesses will reach nearly $350 billion in health care costs.
Conversely, people who spend time in nature and engage in physical activity have lower levels of mortality, morbidity and illness. Physically active people also have reduced feelings of isolation and feel more connected to other individuals in the community. And individually, active people save over $1500 in annual care versus non-active people.
Fortunately, the Batavia Park District offers many programs and activities to promote healthier lifestyles for people of all ages, including tumbling, cheer and gymnastics classes for kids, an active adults senior club and year-round yoga classes.
“We have a couple of yoga classes that are really good for people when they want to unplug,” said Batavia Park District Fitness Supervisor Kathy Freedlund. “One’s called Relax & Renew and it’s packed this summer. People come in and they meditate for a little bit, just breathing. Studies show that’s so good for you. And you have to turn off your cell phones when you come in.”
“We’re trying different things constantly to make ourselves more accessible to the public,” Niemela added. “Sometimes the wakeup call for people comes when it’s too late. It comes when a doctor’s telling someone that they are a high cancer risk or that they’re now diabetic. So it’s our responsibility as a public agency and as public servants to remind the public and inform them about ways they can get involved and how they can unplug.”
Unsurprisingly, it’s especially difficult to get younger people to “unplug,” with many children spending more than seven hours per day in front of a screen. Niemela said the Batavia Park District consistently tries to innovate and find ways to get younger kids and teens to put down their smartphones and step away from their video games.
“We have added attractions,” she said. “We have tween nights now where tweens can congregate and get together for a dance every Friday night. At the Hall Quarry Beach we’ve got games that are specific for teenagers and we market it to the teens.”
Furthermore, the Batavia Park District prides itself as the largest local employer of youth, providing many seasonal employment opportunities for young people. Most of these jobs, such as lifeguarding, require a degree of physical activity. And Niemela also uses summer hiring to educate teens about the numerous career paths available through the park district.
“A lot of the time with our seasonal hiring we remind the young kids that you can enter the parks and recreation world as a marketing professional or on the human resources side or on the finance side. It’s not just parks and recreation, there’s a whole world to it,” she said. “Last year the Chicago Tribune named the Batavia Park District a top workplace. We ended up number 38 out of 125 and we were up there with Fortune 500 companies. So we’re doing something right.”
From the perspective of the community, part of what the Batavia Park District does right involves actively listening and responding to the needs of its constituents.
“This summer the park district will be delivering a community needs assessment to Batavia residents, and I encourage everyone to complete it,” Niemela said. “We don’t want to provide services that people don’t want. We want to provide things people need.”
Niemela also hopes the Unplug campaign helps emphasize the extent to which Batavians daily lives already intersect with services provided by the park district.
“We have people who say, ‘my kids are grown up, we don’t use the park district anymore.’ Do you take your dog to the Bark Park? Do you take your grandchildren to the playground? Do you go to the Windmill City Festival? All those different ways of life are threaded with the park district through them,” she said.
Additionally, the Batavia Park District offers services and resources to residents through the partnerships the agency has with entities throughout the community. For instance, when the school district was no longer able to offer full day kindergarten, the park district came in to bridge the gap and created the enrichment program.
“We offer half day care with enrichment activities and we hire certified teachers to provide care so the kids who are attending can have a full day of school,” Niemela said.
The Batavia Park District also has a partnership with the historical society, with both organizations currently working on an expansion project at Batavia’s Depot Museum.
“The Depot Museum has been an anchor in our community, and it’s right along the Prairie Path for people throughout all communities to stop and learn more about Batavia. The ultimate goal for the expansion of the Depot Museum is to create more storage for artifacts and create a welcome center for the community,” Niemela said.
Indeed, both directly and peripherally the Batavia Park District plays a major role in defining what it means to be a Batavian while enriching the quality of life for all residents. With tennis courts, ball fields, basketball courts, skate parks and miles of trails, opportunities abound for people of all ages and lifestyles to unplug and play in the community.
“If people want to unplug, tune in to what their needs truly are and look out for themselves, we are there to help,” Niemela said. “That’s our story.”
Ben Scott is the community editor of Neighbors magazines.