By Michael Wallen
On a Friday in the middle of June, the last bell of the school year rings for Eugene elementary through high school students. Summer vacation begins. Now parents who work year-round have a quandary. From September to now, single parents and two-income families have relied on having their children watched by teachers 9:00 am to 3:00 pm weekdays. What happens during the summer?
Every summer since 1998, City of Eugene Recreation Services has operated a variety of recreational programs for children ages seven and up. Under the name Fun For All, eight parks around the city effectively become drop-in summer camps. The sites serve children of all socioeconomic backgrounds at no cost to their families, even providing free lunches courtesy of FOOD For Lane County.
Walk through Churchill Sports Park on a hot August afternoon. The park stands next to the empty high school. Walking along the winding concrete path from Bailey Hill Road, the first area you pass is the skate park. They’ve had a serious problem with graffiti here. Teenagers would often tag “No love” throughout this part of the park and at the strip mall across the road.
Keep walking and you’ll see the Fun For All tent. Pairs of City of Eugene Recreation Services employees run the program at ten parks throughout the city. At most of them, staff is present from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm (4:00 in Churchill) weekdays. There are also various special events that rotate between the parks.
Tirzah Brounstein comes walking from the fire station down the block, eating a calzone from the Churchill Market across the street. She’s the site leader at Churchill Sports Park. This is her second year working with Fun For All. Chase Parker, on his first summer with the program, has been watching the three elementary school age children who’ve stayed until 4:00. At peak time in the early afternoon, they had around 50 children of various ages.
Brounstein is a slender young woman with long brown hair. She wears jeans with a blue City of Eugene Recreation Services T-shirt. Parker, a young man with short brown hair and glasses, wears a matching shirt. Between bites of calzone, Brounstein talk of having gotten the firefighters to agree to come to the park and show the children their equipment.
“Are they going to spray us with the water?” Mike asks.
“Then you would die,” Samona says, noting the water pressure.
Soon the group has packed all the equipment and locked it in a small shed. According to Brounstein, teenagers had been tagging graffiti and going crazy. They broke a key in the lock here and she and Parker couldn’t get to their program stuff. So over at the skate park, they set up the “Lava Monster”, which youth are able to spray paint in exchange for signing a pledge to not tag the rest of the area. This is something Thomas Price, chair of Churchill Area Neighbors, had floated getting the city to do formally in hopes of stemming the graffiti problem. Brounstein and Parker have taken the initiative to do it informally.
As the children walk to Bailey Hill Road to make their way home, Brounstein and Parker drive north for a staff meeting at Petersen Barn. The Petersen Barn office is a converted red barn set in the middle of a verdant green park in northwest Eugene, next to the small parking lot that’s surrounded by grass. Earlier that afternoon, Senior Program Supervisor Peter Chavannes sat down in the building’s loft office for an interview.
“It’s not designed to be childcare,” Chavannes says. Children can come and go from the sites as they please.
They come for a mix of activities. There are physical activities, crafts and performing arts. Fun 4 All employs a roving artist, special events crew for crafts, and a dance team. This year, Willamette Christian School in Churchill has donated inflatables like a bouncy house and staff to operate them on Tuesdays, rotating between the parks. Each weekday, FOOD For Lane County brings lunches to all the children.
Chavennes has recently moved to the position of Senior Program Supervisor, Youth and Family. Previously an evaluator for the San Francisco school district, he came to work for the City of Eugene five years ago. According to his co-worker Sarah Rankin, the program itself has run since 1998.
The parks host special events under the Fun For All banner after its regular hours. One of the most popular is the movie night, hosted by a different park every Friday at 9:00 pm.
Eugene is famous for its bicycle-friendly city government. With the parks as far apart as 24th Avenue and University Street and Dakota and Burnett Streets, would Fun For All do movie nights in multiple neighborhoods simultaneously if they had the resources?
Chavannes says no. “It’s fairly expensive to do a movie night,” he says, and if they did have a larger budget, they’d still be concerned with oversaturation.
We catch up with Brounstein and Parker at dusk on the edge of Monroe Park at Broadway and Monroe Street. The projection screen has been set up. It’s about half again as wide as the white van parked next to it is long. Behind the van is a gas-powered 120V generator, loudly humming over the assembled crowd. Around 200 people have assembled for the movie, split evenly between families, unchaperoned teenagers, and young adults. It’s about the same turnout as in Churchill last Friday.
Brounstein is working the popcorn table. She’s still wearing her staff T-shirt, but has changed into print pajama bottoms. The scent of liquid butter fills the nearby air. A line of children of all ages has formed to have hot popcorn scooped out of the four-foot high bag sitting on the grass.
Thirty feet away, off toward the van, you’ll find another line of children. This one for the Human Powered Smoothie Maker. It’s a modified exercise bike with a blender between the handles. It’s been brought here by Northwest Community Credit Union, one of Fun For All’s sponsors. A robust gray-haired man in a dress shirt and dark slacks removes the blender, filling it with frozen berries, yogurt, and a banana. After he puts it back in place, the eight-year-old girl on the bike pedals, grinning widely as she cranks the ingredients into a well-blended smoothie.
The man running the machine is Dwight Dzierzek from Marketing. He’s been out at the parks doing this every Friday night, with the Assistant Branch Manager. He says they have two of these machines. The other is currently at Relay For Life. As he removes the blender again, young children swarm around with the provided plastic cups. They can’t seem to get enough.
At 9:00 pm sharp, Parker starts the movie, Mirror Mask. Twenty minutes in, a four-year-old blonde girl distracts the people gathered around seated on plastic chairs, blankets, and the grass by running around waving a ball of green lights. No one minds.
At 10:40 the movie ends. After five minutes, all the families and teenagers have packed up and are on their way out of the park. Only ten young adults remain on the field, some loitering on their bicycles, some sitting barefoot in the grass to smoke. Over at the van, the staff starts packing up the equipment on another successful night.
On Monday morning, parents will be working. Children will be back in the parks. It will be Slime Day in Churchill. According to staff, it takes a huge amount of work and creativity, plus some money and local donations of time and material, to keep children of diverse ages entertained through the summer. The consensus though is that it’s an important job and a fun one.
Says Parker, “I have no complaints about my job whatsoever.”