Rec on the Run

Mobile Recreation Programs Can Help Departments Compensate for a Lack of Facilities

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Riverside, Calif., boasts 52 parks, but only nine community centers. Such a circumstance might severely hamper a park and recreation department's efforts in any other sprawling city of more than 255,000 residents, 64,000 of whom are under the age of 14. But with the March launch of its mobile recreation program, the Riverside City Park and Recreation Department is now able to reach out to youths in neighborhoods who don't have the convenience of a community center nearby.

"Working parents aren't always able to take their kids to where the recreation opportunities are," says Victoria Zendejas, Riverside's recreation services coordinator. "We go to the parks that are either right next to elementary schools or are involved in the Operation Safe Parks program, so kids don't have to cross busy streets." (Operation Safe Parks is a Riverside Police Department program that teams residents living near parks with police, park rangers and sports leagues to improve their neighborhoods and create a safer environment for youths.)

As part of creating that environment, the Riverside mobile recreation program has staff members load athletic equipment, arts-and-crafts materials and board games into a cargo van borrowed from the city's transportation department. The van visits seven parks a week. From Tuesday through Friday, its rounds include visits to one park a day from 3 to 5:30 p.m., and on Saturday, it makes stops at three parks between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Next month, the borrowed cargo van will be replaced with a full-size truck and 24-foot trailer combination. "The trailer has built-in cabinetry, a sink, a generator and a service window, much like a snack-bar trailer," says Zendejas. "Basically, think of it as a community center on wheels."

Riverside's traveling community center will eventually be named and painted by mobile-recreation program participants, which number anywhere from 30 to 45 youths each day. To foster repeated participation, the mobile recreation staff provides a monthly calendar, so that youths know when to expect visits at their local park and what activities to look forward to. "We've created a following," says Zendejas. "Kids want to come back and play with us. It's really exciting."

Apparently the excitement is catching on across southern California. Several other municipalities, including Rancho Cucamonga, Fontana, Costa Mesa and Irvine, have also started mobile recreation programs during the last year. In April, "Fun on the Run" - the City of Rancho Cucamonga Community Services Department's version - celebrated its first year of operation. Over the course of the year, Fun on the Run's staff and its 18-foot customized trailer regularly visited 15 of the city's 21 parks and served approximately 8,000 youths.

According to Kristi Kelley, Rancho Cucamonga's recreation coordinator, the program was started because the city's indoor facilities were no longer addressing the needs of area youths. "Our community centers aren't necessarily recreation-based anymore. They now house contract-based programs for adults," she says. "And many of them aren't even near parks. Kids can't simply go in and check out a ball like they used to."

Five days a week, Fun on the Run offers youths those athletic opportunities from 2:30 to 5 p.m. at area parks, but also puts on plays, puppet shows and karaoke parties for non-athletic youths. "It's an outstanding program," says Kelley. "We really try to reach everybody and give kids something they otherwise might not have."

Cutbacks in state funding and an uncertain economy have hurt many municipalities' construction and expansion efforts. Setbacks at the ballot box are forcing park and recreation departments to consider other options. While some are able to partner with their local school districts to share or lease facilities, more departments are opting to go the mobile route. "Here in Merced, we don't have many facilities," says Alexander Hall, that Northern California city's director of parks and community services. "So we thought, 'Why not do some form of mobile recreation and take the programs to the kids?' "

In September, Merced will roll out its first mobile recreation program. Operating out of a cargo van, recreation staff will visit a number of the city's parks between 3 and 6 p.m. on weekdays, taking with them audiovisual equipment so kids can watch videos or listen to music, in addition to the standard assortment of athletic equipment, board games and arts-and-crafts materials. "We have a lot of youths in our town looking for things to do," says Hall. "If you don't give them organized, structured things to do, they're going to find less-constructive things on their own."

Merced's mobile recreation program will be offered for free and its versatility will allow youths of varying ages and interests to participate. While Hall plans to eventually purchase two more vans, he maintains that the mobile recreation program is not a stopgap solution. "We have a long-range plan to add more public facilities, but you're talking maybe eight to 10 years down the road. This is here to subsidize what we already have going on," he says. "The city council, city manager and parks and recreation commission all like the idea. Everybody agrees that we need more services for youth and that we have to do whatever we can."

How each park and recreation department determines what its community needs will, of course, require a degree of customization. Costa Mesa's park and recreation department, for example, offers a mobile skate park to accommodate its growing population of skateboarding and inline-skating enthusiasts. "There was some discussion at city council meetings about building a skate park," says Rob Waite, a recreation leader with the Costa Mesa Recreation Division. "But there was a controversy about where it should be located."

As a compromise, recreation officials - borrowing upon a concept originated by their Long Beach counterparts - introduced the mobile skate park last June. The park features a variety of skating equipment, including two quarter pipes, three wedges, two spines, a fun box and a rail. The equipment is transported via a flatbed truck to various park locations around the city three days a week. Three recreation employees monitor the site at all times, and require participants to fill out and sign a waiver before using the equipment. During the school year, the skate park is open from 2 to 5 p.m., with those hours expanded to 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summertime.

Riverside park and recreation officials also plan to expand their program's hours and assign more staff to accommodate increased participation among youths on school vacations. As of this writing, the program is slated to run Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. But because some of Riverside's elementary schools are on year-round schedules and do not share traditional vacation periods with other schools, Zendejas anticipates the program will have to adjust its schedule accordingly to serve as many youths as possible. "It works best with traditional September-through-June school schedules," she says. "But so many schools are breaking up the year now."

Rancho Cucamonga, too, has a year-round school district within its city limits, but Kelley doesn't expect the summer-schedule overlaps to deter youths from participating in Fun on the Run, which she says served as many as 90 youths a day last summer. To keep the interest of summer program participants, Fun on the Run will feature theme weeks, such as Luau Week and Barbecue Week. During Luau Week, for example, arts and crafts and games will focus on Hawaiian motifs, providing youths an experience that differs from school-time programming. "They're not in front of the TV, so parents love it," says Kelley. "The kids are outside and in a safe environment. Sometimes they don't have anywhere to go."

Fun on the Run rotates its schedule of park visits every three-and-a-half months, prompting a surprising response from some program participants. "Ironically, kids from across town will continue to come, even after we've moved on to parks in other areas," Kelley adds. "They follow us wherever we go."

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