Like the other kids at a Foam Frenzy that we at the National Trail Parks and Recreation District held this summer in Enon, Connor had been running through the water spraying from a fire department hose, making soap beards and wigs and having fun on a summer day.
When we found out it was his 10th birthday, we had all the kids – and there were nearly 300 – join together to sing happy birthday, which, of course, made his day.
Later, his mother explained to me through tears that it had been the best day Connor had since the family’s home had burned down several weeks before.
It is a reminder to me, as another year is coming to a close, that the most important thing about our 24 parks, 30 miles of trails and roads, seven nature preserves, two dog parks and other facilities is not the parks themselves: It’s the experiences the parks provide for all of us who use them.
None of this is news to the families who rent the Snyder Park or Reid Park picnic shelters weekend after weekend during the warm weather for reunions and other celebrations. If you’re like me, when you see those shelters teeming with people, you get a sense that the parks are coming to life.
It’s the same feeling so many of us get when we go to Summer Arts Festival programs in Veterans Park, a time-honored tradition of more than 50 years.
Likewise, the Cinderella Pumpkin not far from the stage continues to attract not only children to play, but young adults who use it as a backdrop for their prom and wedding pictures, a clear sign of its place in the fabric of our community.
While the Carleton Davidson Stadium on Mitchell Boulevard has always been a fine facility, widely used by the baseball community, the coming of the Champion City Kings has made it, too, a livelier place in the summer.
I myself wanted to cheer when I saw about 10 children pile out of a van and head to the nature park we opened last year behind the stadium. There’s a literacy trail and adventure trail with story panels, a child-size fox den made out of a culvert and a kid-size spider web to play on.
One of the boys, about 12, came charging over the hill and shouted as only a 12-year-old boy can: “This is the cheapest park I’ve ever seen, but it’s the most awesome one!”
I saw a more private and quietly joyful moment unfold at the accessible playground the Springfield Rotary Club built in Snyder Park, when a mother who had never seen her children play together on a playground before looked on as her daughter pushed her son’s wheelchair through the area.
Steps away from there, a family seated at a picnic table told me they had been going to the park on Thursday nights with a bucket of chicken for dinner. It was so they could spend time together rather than in front of the TV or playing video games or being on cell phones.
In the spring, our staff also gave adults and children a reason to enjoy our parks through our “Finding Finnegan” program. Each week, for a month, we hid a cut-out leprechaun in three different parks or community spaces in Clark County. Clues were provided on social media about the leprechauns’ whereabouts and invited participants to post pictures of themselves and Finnegan.
A Fairy House Hunt played the same role this summer. Springfield City Schools drafting teacher Dave Zeller and his students used their Computer Aided Design system to make the house for us to hide and families to seek.
And, of course, people also spend hours hiking and biking on the trails we maintain. Our NTPRD trail walkers and trail riders, many of them seniors, use them not only to stay fit, but to rub shoulders with people as they did in their working days.
Sabrina Tackett, one of our NTPRD Board members, combines walks on the trails and laps at the Splash Zone to meet her weight loss goal.
But the 70 pounds she’s shed there in the past few years are only part of it. She, her husband, and their two children ride from the Splash Zone parking lot to Cedar Bog for a hike or ride from Beatty Station to Yellow Springs before taking a walk in Antioch’s Glen Helen and riding back.
They also enjoy our dog parks both in Snyder and Old Reid parks.
Although our outdoor programs have wound down for the year, more than 1,000 children will get a chance to sit on Santa’s lap and see one of his reindeer from 12:30 to 3:30 Sunday when he comes to the Snyder Park Clubhouse – and it’s free.
I’ll end with a final reflection.
This year has underscored for me what our parks mean to people over a lifetime. Carl Vogel, the father of my good childhood friends, always told stories about his own childhood days in Snyder Park.
Growing up in the 1950s in the neighborhood just south of the park, he felt free to roam the park with his friends and spent day after day fishing, skating, and playing. He would often leave the house after breakfast, returning for lunch, then heading back to the park to play until dark.
He recalled his mother being baptized in Snyder Park on a day when the ice had to be broken to get to the water and, during the course of his chemotherapy, loved to reminisce about those days.
After Mr. Vogel passed away in July, his family decided to buy a bench for the park in his honor. It will be placed near the boathouse, where, as a boy, he’d descend a set of steps to get into the park.
The bench will be not only a fitting reminder to the Vogels of Carl’s treasured experiences in the park, but a reminder that those kinds of experiences are, for the rest of us, just a short drive, walk or bike ride away.
Leann Castillo is the director of the National Trail Parks and Recreation District.
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