What It’s Like to Be a Parks and Recreation Director

Many of us in parks and recreation set a career goal of becoming a parks and recreation director, but few of us know what being a director really entails.

Written By: 

Becky Dunlap, CPRP

“I think that quality of life is truly what we do. For me, it’s a calling, not a career. It’s not a job, and we aren’t just picking up paychecks. We get to really believe in what we do. I don’t think there can be anything more fulfilling.”

– San VanRoenn, Parks & Recreation Director for the Town of Meeker, Colorado

These are the words that Sean VanRoenn left me with at the end of my first ever interview for the podcast.  Inspired and feeling incredibly grateful, I shook his hand, thanked him for his time, and went home with a renewed passion for our field and the work we’re doing.

I want to remind professionals that there are passionate, dedicated, forward-thinking professionals like Sean out there in our field.  That’s why I created this blog.  I think there should be more information about our awesome career path, and the array of jobs you can have once you decided on this field.

This is particularly important for young professionals.  Something that I’ve observed is that recent grads become paralyzed by the array of choices ahead of them (trust me, I know this because I’ve been there).  There feels like a lot of pressure to make the right decision.

After all, when you want to give 110% to your job, you’re investing your time and energy into an organization and role.  Millennials want to feel empowered to make a difference in their workplaces and the environment.  I believe we will see more and more Millennials choose careers in parks and recreation.

There is an opportunity cost for where you spend the majority of your time.   It’s scary to take risks without even knowing what your dream career really looks like.  My dream career (right now) is to become a parks and rec director.  Which is why I interviewed Sean.   My hope is that this interview series helps you get clear on your dream job.

I met Sean VanRoenn at the Colorado Parks and Recreation conference in September of 2016 through a networking event where young professionals were paired with a director of parks and rec.  These kinds of events are such an awesome opportunity for students and recent grads to learn from the best in their field.  I was lucky to be paired with Sean.  When I met Sean, I realized that he was a down-to-earth guy with a  passion for parks and rec.  He shared his stories, advice, and wisdom with openness and honesty.

When I thought about interviewing parks and recreation professionals, Sean immediately jumped front of mind. Luckily, he agreed to be interviewed for this blog.

This gave us the chance to visit the beautiful town of Meeker, Colorado.  This was actually the third time we had visited since I met Sean back in September.    We love this place!  It really is a secret gem of Colorado.  Meeker has awesome mountain biking trails, well maintained parks, an up-and-coming downtown area, and the peaceful serenity of a quiet mountain town.  Don’t forget the thousands of acres of wilderness just a short drive from Meeker.

Tell us about your position as Parks and Recreation Director, and how you managed to get into this role?

Sean: Thank you Becky.  For one, I just want to say this is a great idea.  I love that we have the opportunity to talk bout this great industry that we are in.  I have been in Meeker for two years.  I came to the west slope best slope from the front range.  I grew up in the Front Range and the mountains were calling me.  I’ve had a background in public parks, recreation, athletics, fitness.  What drew me to Meeker is the unique structure here in that we are a special district.

Usually, municipalities are the more common form of recreation and park management in Colorado and special districts definitely have something to offer in our industry.  We are fortunate to have a lot of mineral, oil, and gas extraction money from all the tax entities here in Meeker.  We are able to provide tremendous amenities for even a smaller population.

We are about 2,000 as a community, a full service recreation center, about 100 acres of developed park land, lots of open space — we have about a million and a half public lands around us — between the BLM, White River National Forest field offices.

Just a tremendous opportunity for partner development with all of these different entities, our town, and the taxing entities.   Meeker really is a great place to be.

As a parks and recreation director, what do you do on a day-to-day basis?

Sean: Some of what I do at the executive level is the non-glamorous stuff.  Risk management, people management, putting out fires as I like to say.   I try to put them out fast enough where nothing burns down but I don’t burn out.  Try to take self-care; make sure that we are providing exceptional quality programs and services. I like to say we are the best small town parks and rec agency in the world.

And I really believe that.  For what we offer, the people that we have.  But what I do is a lot of budget management, managing our personel, day to day operations of our facilities.  Less of the hands on with people, but get to see the satisfaction second hand.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?

Sean: I like the diversity that comes from our industry.  Really, I can show up to work at any given day and I’m doing something different.  I might be counseling a lifeguard or I might be overseeing a dance event, or I might be working on a budget workshop.  And believe it or not, that is what makes the job interesting.

You never know one day to the next what challenges may come forth.  But also through strategic planning, you get to see the evolution of programs and services overtime.  I think being in other entities for a prolonged period of time, seeing that development is so rewarding.

What is one challenge your parks and recreation department is facing right now?

Sean: This is an uncommon problem in Colorado actually.  In terms of human resources — as a small rural community, we are 40 miles from the next largest town — when we have openings, we have the need for sophisticated professionals that have the talents and the abilities, but we don’t always have the ability to recruit those folks, even though we have competitive salaries.  That’s a definitee challenge although we’ve found ways to overcome that challenge.  When we do find people, they tend to stay.  We don’t have high turnover, especially in our leadership positions, which is great.

How did you get started in Parks and Recreation?

Sean: My first job out of grad school —  I went to grad school at The University of Florida —  I took a position at Pittsburgh State College in Pittsburgh Massachusetts.  A great learning experience.

“Fresh out of school, I was ready to save the world.”

It was a 12 milion dollar recreation facility that the college actually built there.  It was really unique in that it was half for the college and half for the city.  So to see that kind of partnership on that kind of scale has really shaped my perspective.  That was my first position.  I’ve worked in high school athletics, I’ve worked in the front range in public parks and recreation.

If you were to go back, and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Sean: It would probably be to diversify my experience as much as possible.  I was a jock in the gym.  That was great – it allowed me to go on and play in athletics in college.  But I really do wish that I had kayaked, rock climbed, and mountain biked, and learned a little bit about environmental stewardship.  We can’t get enough of that kind of learning.

” The more diverse we are, the more things we can manage.  We are really a jack of all trades in this position.”

We aren’t specialists.  We can be.   We need specialists — fitness, aquatics, and those are great and not to be diminished.  But as we move up, we need to have an understanding of all of these different disciplines.  How do we lead staff and our community in ways that benefit them?

Why do you think parks and recreation is so important?

Sean: I think that quality of life is truly what we do.  And that is why parks and recreation is important.  We get to be about fun, health, stewarding, natural resources.  All of that stuff is passion, philosophy, heart level stuff.  For me, it’s a calling, not a career.  It’s not a job, and we aren’t just picking up paychecks.  We get to really believe in what we do.  And that, I don’t think there can be anything more fulfilling.

This article was one of my first articles written on Becky Talks Parks, and it still continues to be one of the most viewed blog posts. Thanks for reading! – B

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Becky Dunlap, CPRP
Becky Dunlap, CPRP

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