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  • Brian VanDongen

Social Distancing, When Parks and Recreation is about Social Togetherness

Parks and recreation does a lot of good for people and for communities. We bring people together, form common bonds, encourage socializing, usually all outdoors and in nature. Being outside and being socially connected reduces stress, lowers anxiety, and improves morale.


We believe so much in our profession and its power of bringing people, families, and communities together. I am the Assistant Director of Recreation in Readington, NJ; our agency's slogan is "Experience Community." (Seriously, come experience it: it's a beautiful town with miles of hiking trails, seven bucolic parks, and loads of recreational programs.)


But what happens when a scenario - a public health crisis unseen by my generation or generations before - takes that opportunity away? We are in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, and, presently, it is particularly concerning here in New Jersey. Cases (and, worse, deaths) continue to rise both in my state and nationwide.


Because there is no cure or immunity, public health officials say the best way to stop the spread of the disease and "flatten the curve" is to practice social distancing.


That means the suspension of programs and the postponement of events. In other words, the loss of an opportunity to bring people together, to form community.


While those actions are the socially (and medically) responsible thing to do, social distancing is putting a strain on an industry, a profession, a public service, that is, at its core, about social togetherness.


We, parks and recreation professionals, are at our best when we are able to see a child score their first soccer goal. Or the smiles of families bonding at a community gathering. Or the pride in a child after they create their latest art masterpiece. Or the calm of people leaving the yoga class. Those are moments we cherish; those are moments that remind us why we chose to work in the profession.


And it's not just us parks and recreation professionals who thrive when those (or similar) events occur. No. The people thrive, the community thrives, everyone thrives.


In a field where we try to get people to disconnect from technology and to experience the moment and the world around them, technology may be our saving grace. Through our phones, we can still connect with people, just not in the same way as we can in person.


Many parks and recreation agencies, including my own, are utilizing technology for live streaming fitness and art classes, online contests, and virtual meet-ups. But, it's still not the same.


Parks and recreation is about social togetherness. It's easy to forget that in "normal" times. It's easy to take that for granted.


In these challenging times, though, the mission and goal of parks and recreation is never clearer. We are about social togetherness.


We'll get through this together, from a socially safe distance. And once we do, we'll be the first ones to help communities socially reconnect.


Stay safe. Be well. Wash your hands.