Unable to find the right person for the role, the position of Schenectady, N.Y., parks and recreation director was left vacant for many years – about 20 years. Once Willie Deane moved back to the city and was available to take the position, the city considered him a perfect fit for the job.
Deane was raised and well-known in the city. He graduated from Schenectady High School with prestigious honors. After graduating from Purdue University, he spent his time overseas playing professional basketball. While playing basketball, he also took college classes and worked in supervisory roles in Bulgaria and Russia, thus gaining valuable management experience.
“I gained a lot of cultural capital from living in 15 different countries,” he mentioned.
During his two months off between seasons each year, Deane would come back home to Schenectady and run community give-back programs. He partnered with the YMCA for one program using basketball to help tutor kids. Partnering with Life Enrichment Inc., Deane would mentor, tutor, teach and coach a girls’ basketball team for young women 12 years of age and under.
Given his history as a professional basketball player and his past in helping the children of the community using these skills, Deane was a prime candidate to take over the long-vacant superintendent of parks and recreation position in Schenectady. He officially took over that role earlier this year.
When it came to getting parks and recreation programs back up and running, Deane’s first order of business has been to focus on summer youth programs. With no one running the parks and recreation department, there had been a void in programming and in the parks, with little for children to take part in. Therefore, while looking for programming ideas to hold for Schenectady’s youth, he sat down and wrote out all the current events going on in the world today. This included artificial intelligence, sports, literacy, financial literacy and science. He then reached out to local organizations that are well-known for teaching these programs.
For instance, miSci led the summer’s science program, and You Inc. took point on the financial literacy program. Professional basketball players volunteered to come to the parks and teach youth how to play basketball and other sports. A bike program was held that taught children the basics of how to fix a bicycle and also taught those children to ride a bike who had not yet learned how to ride.
“Ten kids who never knew how to ride a bike will never forget that, and that’s a skill they’ll have for the rest of their life,” Deane described.
One program also involved participants collecting recycled material found throughout the park, and using it to make a boat. Children tested their boats’ seaworthiness, and then a boat race followed.
Each of the programs involved a special subject or life skill and lasted one week. Other summer programming continued throughout the summer. However, there were only six weeks of summer vacation for the programs. After programming was complete, the participants were invited to an awards ceremony at GE Theatre, where they received surveys asking what they liked best and what could be improved. One benefit of the programs through the parks and recreation department was that they ran longer than summer programming through the local YMCA and Boys and Girls Club, providing children with additional opportunities. Deane also kept in regular communication with those leading the programming on areas to improve for next year and visited each of the sites himself throughout the summer.
“This year was mostly a test to see what would be received and how things would be received,” Deane admitted. “Now we go back to the drawing board to see what interested kids the most and what can be improved.”
A minimum of 100 kids participated in the summer youth programs this year throughout four different parks: Central Park, Orchard Park, Steinmetz Park and Wallingford Park with its splash pad.
The focus for Schenectady currently remains on its summer programs, specifically summer youth programs, and no winter programming is planned at the moment. However, many additions are planned for next year’s summer programming. While there were quite a few city parks under construction and unavailable this year, these parks will be available next summer to expand the programming. Deane also plans a greater collaboration with the school system, YMCA and Boys and Girls Club for next year. Since all four organizations have summer enrichment programming, he believes it would be more impactful for them all to work together so most programming does not all occur at the same time and all four are not competing for participants.
Another benefit was that teenagers and college students were the primary employees of the summer programs. Young adults 14 years of age and up helped to teach the summer programs.
“The most rewarding part was just being able to employ kids for the summer. The program fit perfectly for the kids coming home for the summer and for kids who may not have work experience to gain some experience. It was very rewarding for me to have kids thank us for employment opportunities,” he mentioned. Young adults and college students who need to earn a little extra money are not always able to find opportunities for employment during the summer months. These young adults also allowed the young participants to gain life skills and create relationships with these young adults as role models,” Deane said.
Regarding restarting parks and recreation programming after so long, Deane shared, “Just getting the word out has been the greatest hurdle.”
The plan is to focus more on better marketing and advertising next year to get more participants to the parks.
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