Parks can be one of a city’s richest resources, and nothing, not even a pandemic, should change that. At least, that’s how Frank Carson sees it. A lifelong nature enthusiast, Carson heads up the Parks and Recreation Department for El Cajon, California, a city of over 100,000 just east of San Diego.
“I’m a big proponent for outdoor play,” he explains. “For me, I see part of my role as Parks and Recreation director is getting people outdoors. We could have a crisis on our hands if we push people indoors too much.”
But taking advantage of parks during COVID-19 isn’t easy. On March 12, the department canceled upcoming programs and events. The next week, they closed playgrounds. Grappling with the challenge of how parks could still serve citizens as they sheltered in place, Carson decided to experiment.
“We’re gonna do hopscotch,” he told his special events manager one Thursday evening shortly after events were canceled. The idea was to quickly — and safely, from a distance — sketch a numbered grid on residents’ driveways and drop off a bag of items the department already had on hand: extra sidewalk chalk, beach balls, crayons, construction paper. They spread the word via social media and designed maps to hit each home efficiently. Staff cruised the city, rolling through neighborhoods in a bright orange repurposed land survey van, decked out with the #RecSquad hashtag. Carson called it low budget and hyper-local.
The goal was 50 participants, but they quickly hit 180, maxing out the number of swag bags available. When the hopscotch promo reel (inspired by the Beastie Boys “Sabotage” music video) hit 11,000 views on Facebook, Carson knew they were onto something.
“It had caught fire,” he says. “People see hope. We’re trying to bring a little hope and joy back to the community when it’s not easy right now.”
With the success of its first initiative, the department now had a compelling case for funding. Kaiser Permanente stepped in to support the Rec Squad, which eagerly began planning new projects. Next came “Jump,” a chalk art circuit course you can navigate (or try to) while jumping rope, followed by “Hoop,” a similar course with hula hoops. Their newest idea involves foursquare. So far, the Rec Squad has served over 400 El Cajon households.
Sarah Slade’s family is one of them. She’s a teacher, now telecommuting, and her husband is an essential worker. They have three children, ages 4, 7 and 8. Slade admits it’s tough as a parent right now, seeing your kids cooped up and restless, struggling through quarantine like everyone else.
“They haven’t been out anywhere besides the backyard or walks near our house,” she says. “They don’t even ask anymore what we’re going to do. They just know it’s ‘someday.’”
Then the Rec Squad showed up with the hopscotch challenge.
“We got called out to the front yard. It was in the morning, so the kids were still in their pajamas,” Slade recalls. “It was exciting. They loved it.”
Along with game and art supplies, the bag held other activities, including a nature scavenger hunt, which Slade tried a few days later with her kids.
She says outdoor recreation is essential for growing minds.
“Students need kinesis,” she says. “They need to be outside. It gets them moving and lets them be creative.”
And during a time when there’s so much they can’t do, programs like this help them feel special, she adds.
Slade didn’t register for the hopscotch challenge. The visit was spontaneous, just one of the ways the Rec Squad is ensuring their services are equitably distributed.
(Photo courtesy El Cajon Parks and Rec)
Equity was a concern from the beginning, Carson says.
Participants mostly sign up online via a Google Form. Since schools offer WiFi through issued Chromebooks, families with students have internet access during the pandemic. In an effort to reach more people, the department partnered with the board of education to advertise their programs on the laptop backgrounds. And the Rec Squad randomly visits homes that haven’t signed up, too.
“We have hit every neighborhood more than once — more than five times,” Carson says. “That was my biggest push, to make sure we have balance with it. It worked out really well. We tapped into a lot of people who don’t usually use our services.”
Along with the Rec Squad, staff launched a Virtual Rec Center featuring free classes on skateboarding, cooking, hip-hop and more. They planned events, including a virtual marathon (or 5k, 10k or half marathon) with a printable race bib, a T-shirt sponsored by a local real estate brokerage firm, and optional medals for purchase. For Memorial Day weekend, they distributed s’mores kits for backyard camping.
“It’s showing our citizens that the city’s actually engaged with them in some fashion,” Carson says. “We are the lowest income city in the county. Anything that costs money, we’re seeking sponsorships. They’re affordable, too: $1,000-2,500.”
Now, with camp season here, the department is facing another challenge — go virtual, in-person or a mix of each? A survey of parents found about 20 percent of parents wanted only virtual camps, while 30 percent wanted only in-person. The rest fell somewhere in between. So the department is doing both. Keeping limited room occupancy, social distancing and sanitation in mind, they’ll begin offering summer day camps June 22. Virtual campers can pick up a bag for at-home camps and follow along with activities online and on their own. The department is also surveying their team of 110 part-time staff so those who feel safer working remotely can do so.
The camps are partially funded through scholarships. When the department refunded canceled spring programs, it gave people the option of turning their refund into a donation. So far, it’s helped at least 50 campers.
Carson hopes to see this kind of community collaboration, including corporate sponsorship, continue past the pandemic. He says they’re looking at partnerships to support efforts going forward, specifically when it comes to serving “underparked” areas. Not every project has to be big to make a difference.
“It takes us 3-4 minutes to draw and go,” says Carson, recalling the hundreds of hopscotch and obstacle courses they’ve created over the past several weeks. “But it’s going to leave a lifelong memory for those youth. Studies show if you get kids out in nature at a young age, they’re going to be outdoor enthusiasts their entire life.”
And that’s the kind of far-reaching impact — on health, the community and the environment — that keeps the Rec Squad going.
This story is part of The Power of Parks, a series exploring how parks and recreation facilities and services can help cities achieve their goals in wellness, conservation and social equity. The Power of Parks is supported by a grant from the National Recreation and Park Association.
Cheryl Rodewig got her start in journalism shadowing soldiers on field training, where she learned the value of quick camera reflexes. Now, she's a marketer, speaker and award-winning feature writer published with USA Today, Fodor’s, MarketWatch and more. She currently lives in the Tampa Bay area by way of Atlanta and Nimes, France.