EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second installment in a four-part series about whether Pekin youth have enough to do in the city. This installment focuses on the perspective of the Pekin Park District and the City of Pekin.
In his more than 25 years of working in parks and recreation, the Pekin Park District Executive Director Cameron Bettin has found that organizing activities for teens has always been a challenge. Part of it, he believes, comes from the fact that many high school students are involved either in school athletics at the high school level or school-sponsored clubs or other extracurricular activities. Some also hold part-time jobs.
“It’s always been difficult to find things they’re interested in,” he said. “I think a lot of it has to do with the fact they have other things they can start getting involved with. If you go over to the high school, they have a list of the different clubs they can join. It’s possible they just outgrow the park district. They also like recreational activities where they can come and go as they please. They might not want to sign up for a scheduled six-to-eight-week program but could show up to watch a hockey game or play a pick-up softball game.”
While the Pekin Park District offers recreation programs for all ages, few of them are tailored specifically for teens. According to Pekin Park District Superintendent of Recreation Shawn Powers, that is partly because it is difficult to generate interest in such programs.
“When we throw stuff out there, they don’t sign up,” said Powers. “It’s kind of a Catch 22. We don’t put them out there because nobody comes, and nobody comes because we don’t put them out there.”
Powers added that last year, the park district attempted to form a youth advisory board in partnership with Pekin Community High School in an effort to develop programs specifically tailored for teens. The board disbanded due to a lack of attendance at the meetings. He noted that teens are a busy group, which increases the challenge of generating interest in park district youth activities.
“There’s so much out there for youth to do,” he said. “People who are older might think they’re not doing anything. A lot of them develop genuine friendships over the Internet, through Facebook or PlayStation or Twitter with people they’ve never actually met. So, their social activities often consist of just going home and playing games together or getting together on social media. We as adults may think they’re sitting around doing nothing. But they’re socializing the same way we did when we were teenagers before social media was around, except that the interaction isn’t face-to-face. It’s hard to tap into that and make it an organized activity, because they can do it on their own.
One area where the park district enjoys a great deal of success in reaching out to Pekin teenagers and preparing them for adulthood, Powers added, is through the provision of employment opportunities.
“A lot of our employees are ages 16 to 18, and I think we take more pride in them than just handing them paychecks,” he said. “We teach them leadership skills and we spend a lot of time with them. It may not be a recreational activity, but a lot of our employees are very passionate about what they do. They work where they do because the jobs are associated with activities they love.”
The Pekin Park District offers a variety of passive and active classes and activities for all ages and abilities. The park district also has a partnership with various youth organizations including the Pekin Amateur Hockey Association, the Pekin Community Softball Association, Boys and Girls clubs, the Union Mission, Pekin Pride Soccer, and the Junior Football League.
“I think youth activities are important, because they give kids a chance to get together and get away from their computer screens and phones,” said Powers. “Also, recreation is healthy for the mind, spirit and body. That’s important for all ages, from ages three to 103.”
In her capacity as interactive media coordinator and dance director for the Pekin Park District, Courtney Psinas, the City of Pekin’s social media and downtown coordinator, appears to be a sort of liaison between the city and the park district. She has had a firsthand opportunity to see the variety of programs the park district offers.
“They do a great job providing youth activities to Pekin,” said Psinas. “They have everything from dance and tumbling activities to summer camps to soccer to softball leagues. The Pekin Public Library also holds a lot of youth activities in their facility, such as youth group reading, yoga, and book clubs that meet once or twice a month.”
In some communities, parks and recreation departments fall under city government, giving cities greater responsibility for providing youth activities. That is not the way that Pekin is structured, according to Pekin City Manager Tony Carson. Because the Pekin Park District operates as a separate entity from the city’s government, providing youth activities is not the city’s primary focus.
“In the short time I’ve been in Pekin, I’ve noticed that the part district is one of the strengths of the community,” said Carson. “They do a great job of providing activities for people of all ages, and we don’t want to duplicate what’s already available. A community has limited resources. At this point, the city focuses on police and fire departments, street maintenance, community development, sewer department and trash collection.”