by Allison Colman (she/her), Director of Health, National Recreation and Park Association
In the midst of COVID-19 and a racial justice awakening, more and more people have come to rely on the essential infrastructure, services and programs that community-based institutions provide to address growing economic and educational disparities, increasing rates of mental health disorders and a host of other ongoing public health and social challenges. Two treasured institutions in particular, our local public libraries and our local parks and recreation agencies, have emerged as vital partners in confronting these pressing challenges which demand equitable, community-driven and innovative solutions that meet people where they are.
The National Recreation and Park Association – the nation’s leading nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing local parks, recreation and environmental conservation efforts that enhance the quality of life for all people – believes that parks and recreation, libraries and other community-based institutions are vital, upstream solutions that directly improve the conditions where people live, learn, work and play. These organizations play a critical role as Community Wellness Hubs — trusted gathering places that connect every member of the community to essential programs, services and spaces that advance health equity, improve health outcomes and enhance overall quality of life.
Cross-sector and cross-disciplinary partnerships are key to this vision and institutions are increasingly leveraging their unique resources, strengths and assets to collaborate and work towards the shared goals of advancing equity, promoting health and wellness, closing the opportunity gap and building environmental and community resiliency. In fact, a recent survey of the parks and recreation field conducted by NRPA found that 58% of agencies partner with local libraries in support of health and wellness programs and services.
Cross-sector and cross-disciplinary partnerships are key to this vision and institutions are increasingly leveraging their unique resources, strengths and assets to collaborate and work towards the shared goals of advancing equity, promoting health and wellness, closing the opportunity gap and building environmental and community resiliency.
Recognizing the value of these partnerships, NRPA has recently begun directly supporting joint efforts between parks and recreation agencies and library systems to build solutions to health and socio-economic challenges. In the Little Rock area — like so many other U.S. cities — one of the biggest challenges many residents face is having access to reliable, consistent and safe transportation. For many families, a lack of private or public transportation in the summer months can mean the difference between their kids accessing enough food, staying engaged with peers, receiving academic support, moving their bodies and connecting to positive relationships with role models and mentors.
With support from the Walmart Foundation, NRPA provided grant funding to a cross-sector partnership between the Central Arkansas Library System, Rock Region METRO, Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department and the Be Mighty METRO program to launch a city-wide transportation initiative. With more than 90% of the city’s summer meal sites at libraries, parks and community centers directly served by existing bus routes, the partners developed a strategy to provide bus passes to youth and families in support of their transportation needs during the summer months.
While there were high hopes for this program, the success was even greater than expected. That summer, pass holders took over 12,000 rides on the public transportation system with over 1,600 individuals registering for bus passes. The number of summer meals served at libraries increased by 46% (compared to June 2018) and the CALS summer reading numbers also grew substantially, from 7,733 youth engaged in 2018 to 13,652 in 2019. This unique program has lived on and the partnership between CALS and Little Rock Parks and Recreation has continued to evolve and grow, with efforts more recently focused on connecting community members to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits by piloting a SNAP navigator initiative in which AmeriCorps Associates, CALS staff and parks and recreation professionals are trained to provide SNAP enrollment support at meal sites and community events.
Transportation Increases Access to Healthy Meals in Arkansas
Highlight of the Be Mighty METRO Program
With the continued challenges around substance use and mental health disorders, NRPA has also supported a partnership in Elizabethton (Tenn.) between the parks and recreation department, local library and substance use prevention coalition that aims to provide one-on-one and group mentoring services to youth impacted by the opioid epidemic, and provide youth leadership opportunities via a newly formed Youth Coalition Board. The partners collaborate on recruiting youth and adult mentors, delivering community-wide programming and special events, developing referral networks to other needed services and educating caregivers about the signs and symptoms of substance use. With youth input, the first collaborative event – The Battle at the Bridge – was held at Covered Bridge Park, a hotspot for substance use among teens. The event created a platform for elevating the conversation around substance use, stigma, coping and prevention across the community, while building trust between youth and community institutions.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous partnership examples have emerged, reinforcing the unique role that libraries and parks and recreation agencies play in communities. Noah Lenstra, assistant professor of library and information science at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, detailed several innovative and thoughtful partnerships in a blog post published in May 2020 on NRPA’s Open Space blog. The blog highlights how parks and recreation agencies and libraries have frequently teamed up to:
- Support virtual health, wellness and enrichment programming for youth and older adults;
- Provide safe and creative opportunities to engage in physical activity and exercise programs;
- Develop creative StoryWalks® that combine literacy and spending time in nature, which has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety and promote positive mental health benefits;
- Provide needed services like childcare, healthy meals, referrals to other social services and community resources; and
- Promote social and community connection during a time of isolation, grief and uncertainty.
Investing time and energy into strengthening partnerships between these vital institutions provides a greater opportunity to address inequities and gaps in existing systems, bring more holistic programming and services into trusted spaces and make even greater collective impacts. As we head back into the school year this fall and as we continue to recover from COVID-19 and work towards a more equitable, healthy and happy future, collaboration between libraries and parks and recreation will continue to be a powerful pathway to support the delivery of high-quality programs, services and resources to those who need them most.
Director of Health, National Recreation and Park Association
Allison Colman serves as the director of health at the National Recreation and Park Association, overseeing the organization’s health and wellness portfolio and working to advance NRPA’s long-term vision of park and recreation professionals serving as stewards of Community Wellness Hubs. Prior to joining NRPA, Allison worked at a community-based organization facilitating health and wellness programs and services across all populations. Combined with her work at the local and national levels, Allison has extensive experience implementing and scaling evidence-based interventions and advancing systems-change strategies that center health equity and improve community health and well-being.