Guest Column: Park District was there for me

Guest Column: Park District was there for me

By Ralph Hawthorn

I grew up in a single-parent household. My mother, brothers, and I were very poor. Fairgrounds Park was the only outlet we had for recreation. Looking back, I realize that the Rockford Park District was there every day for me, providing recreation. It taught me a lot of the discipline and social skills I have today.

I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know how crucial or important a lot of the Park District activities were at the time. I learned team-building skills, leadership skills, hands-on activities that helped with my motor skills and motor development. Even being on the basketball team helped me be a team member; it helped me to be the leader I am today. Back then you didn’t learn those types of skills at school. School focused on English, reading, and math—not on how to be part of a group.

When I was a kid, everything the Park District did was free except for swimming, so we had to go swimming in Kent Creek. I think it cost 50 cents to go to the pool. However, I appreciate the fact that Fairgrounds is the only park pool that doesn’t charge for swimming today.

A lot of my friends became involved in gangs. My whole neighborhood was saturated with gangs, prostitutes, alcoholics, and gambling. I grew up in a very negative environment. I got into a lot of trouble early on. It was overwhelming and I took the wrong way, the long way home, but I finally made it.

Today, I’m the executive director of Let’s Talk It Out, a program for at-risk youth that offers inter-denominational support and alternative choices like G.E.D. and anger-management classes. I know that if it were not for the Rockford Park District, I would not be where I am today. I continue to see the positive effects of the Park District on kids I work with at Let’s Talk It Out—kids who need recreational outlets like I did. Through their recreation programs, they taught me life skills that I did not get anywhere else. That’s why I urge you to vote “Yes” for the Rockford Park District Referendum on April 1.

The last time the Park District asked for additional support was in 1990, which provided funding until 2000. Since then, they’ve upgraded and maintained existing structures and built needed facilities to meet community needs, as much as possible without asking for additional money.

Then, when they realized they might need a referendum to continue serving the community, they took the time to get input before making their decision. They surveyed more than 1,600 people; they held more than 40 community meetings, and asked people what they wanted.

I consider myself very fortunate to have made it to where I am today. The Rockford Park District played an important role in my journey. I have four children who enjoy the Park District’s facilities—playgrounds, summer programs, basketball at Andrews Park, Levings Lake, Harkins Pool, the list goes on. I’m even on the Fairgrounds Park Neighborhood Advisory Council for the Park District. They wanted citizen input on how to make Fairgrounds Park better, how to revitalize it. We’ve been meeting since 1997 and the District has accepted and implemented many of our suggestions, like some much needed renovations for the pool at Fairgrounds.

Recreation is a positive alternative to all the other negative things that face our children. It’s been said that kids who are involved in recreation and sports tend not to get into as much trouble as those who aren’t.

From a personal standpoint, as much as I don’t like the idea of higher taxes, I would rather put my money into what I know works, like the Park District. Believe me, the Park District works, I am living proof of that. So, I encourage you to vote “Yes” on April 1 for the Rockford Park District Referendum.

Ralph Hawthorn is executive director of Let’s Talk It Out, Inc.

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