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5 Questions for Melvin Cooper

POSTED: February 13, 2012 1:28 a.m.

Melvin Cooper has spent his entire professional career with the Gainesville Parks and Recreation Department. During his tenure, the department has provided services to thousands of children and adults, won numerous awards and been recognized as one of the best in the state.

Today, The Times asks Cooper five questions about recreation services.

1. How have children's sports preferences and needs changed over the years?

The structure of youth sports has changed from a generation ago. There are kids who are tremendously athletic and others who are still coming along. Sometimes we as professional administrators, volunteer coaches and parents forget why we do what we do. It is not to satisfy our individual egos but to provide a positive healthy experience to teach the importance of teamwork, cooperation and skill development, ethics, abiding by the rules, winning and losing with grace and coping with success and failure, respecting authority figures and always striving to do your best.

This, above all else, at the recreation level, is what we should be about. Our job and our challenge, is balancing the needs of parents and children in a fair and equitable way and not for children to meet adult expectations, but for adults to look at youth sports through the eyes of children and to meet those needs while they are being children at play.

According to a recent report from the National Alliance for Youth Sports, the youth sports landscape has undergone a transformation in recent years. Typical sports seasons are being stretched longer and longer.

Many parents are spending increased amounts of time shuttling children back and forth between several sports at a time. There is an increase of summer camps, travel teams and all-star competitions and an endless string of practices.

While there are greater opportunities for children to participate in an organized setting than there were in the past, this structure may diminish opportunities for youngsters to truly enjoy themselves. It is thought that an emphasis on learning new skills, participation, fun and properly managed competition is what will best meet children's needs and keep them coming back.

2. How challenging is it to deal with parents these days?

All parents want and deserve the very best for their children. And while most parents do a tremendous job of keeping a sense of perspective when it comes to organized sports, some may stray into unreasonable behavior that often creates the problems we read about in the news.

Being a parent of a youth sports participant is not easy and they often walk a tightrope between offering positive encouragement and applying unnecessary pressure and stress.

Children deserve to have a rewarding experience in whatever sport they choose to participate and parents, along with our certified youth sports administrators have a responsibility to make that happen. In our case, we try to be proactive through parent education and a "Good Sportsmanship and Fair Play Agreement" that we ask our parents, coaches, officials and league administrators to abide by.

3. Your department deals with a variety of activities, from youth sports to managing the local parks. What's the most rewarding part of your job and why?

It's not the parks and facilities that we maintain or the recreation programs that we operate, but the value we add to people's lives and the memories that we create that are most important; a daddy and daughter dancing together for the first time, that first T-ball hit, that first touchdown and that first soccer goal, that first jump off the diving board and swimming to the side of the pool; the joy I see from a child's accomplishment and the confidence it has instilled in them.

4. What do you think the parks and recreation department will look like in 20 years?

In 20 years (2032), the Gainesville Parks and Recreation Agency will be celebrating 108 years of providing service to our citizens and contributing to our city's quality of life. We will be seen as a progressive parks and recreation agency which has adapted over the years to the political, social, economic and technological challenges along the way.

We will be able to change and adapt, not just for the sake of change, but knowing that change represents opportunity for those who are prepared to take advantage of it. The future challenge is efficiency without sacrificing effectiveness. This includes the ability for us to include greater attention to public and community relations, innovative fiscal management, better mastery of information technology systems and greater emphasis on marketing.

It will be about operating more as a business without forfeiting the essential ingredients of fun and personal well-being and remaining accessible.

Our agency will be a "connected" community where citizens will take advantage of our services not just by car, but by way of trails, walkways and bike paths. Walking and biking have emerged as some of the most popular fitness trends and a way to become more involved in recreation opportunities without having to start up a car.

Our success will be formulated on a number of factors 20 years down the road to include our ability to build cooperative relationships and to establish coalitions with other organizations, finding ways to celebrate the variety of cultures within our community, our ability to identify directly with the growing wellness movement as well as our ability to continue providing quality service to all citizens we serve.

Today and 20 years hence, our park system represents a significant investment and community asset as well as impacting our economic vibrancy and quality of life.

5. Childhood obesity is a huge problem these days. What are the best exercises and activities kids can do in Gainesville parks to stay active?

It is important to engage children at a young age and develop interests and skills that keep them moving well into adulthood. Accessibility, affordability and quality have always been our focus in the fight against childhood obesity. I encourage kids to play on a playground, go swimming, pick up a racquet and a tennis ball and hit the courts, play a sport, or walk on our trails with friends or families to stay active.

 



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