By Ilana Newman, The Daily Yonder Read more
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Wyoming, Lander was facing a significant budget shortfall due to declining oil and gas prices and reduced revenue from the state. To make ends meet, city officials had to reduce spending somewhere—and the resulting cuts gutted almost the entire Parks & Recreation Department. Then, when the novel coronavirus forced business closures and prevented community gatherings, it compounded an already bleak situation: Lander’s Parks & Rec couldn’t offer any programming in the summer of 2020—and the outlook for 2021 wasn’t much better.
“The pandemic was part of the equation, but not the whole problem,” says Lori Eckhardt, the lone Parks & Rec employee remaining after staff reductions. “The money got cut off from the state.”
As Lander residents entered the new year with renewed hope for normalcy, Eckhardt feared her one-woman department would have little to offer in the summer months. Traditionally, Parks & Rec hosts an array of activities like baseball, basketball, track and field, movie nights, and weeklong camps in Sinks Canyon State Park, but Eckhardt knew all of this wouldn’t be possible in 2021.
Many families were also worried they’d have to endure a second-consecutive summer with no programming for their kids. “It created this general state of anxiousness in families,” says LOR Foundation community officer Michelle Escudero. “I was hearing it from all over the place: families, school districts, organizations, wondering what they could do. So I also started asking what the blockers were and what could help remove them.”
Those community concerns brought forth the idea for funding activities led by community members to fill the gap. Launched in February, LOR’s Summer Spark grants offered to provide up to $1,500 to individuals and organizations who wanted to share their talents with youth, adults, and seniors through educational and recreational activities in the summer. LOR put out a call for ideas, and by the end of March the LOR Foundation had committed more than $20,000 so the community could launch 22 summer activities—camps, workshops, and other creative initiatives—that are open to residents of all ages.
Born from the community, the activities present a diverse range of offerings. They include field trips to the Lander Children’s Museum, a documentary film-making course run by the Lander Library, an audio-training workshop for kids interested in radio put on by the pros at Jack FM, and a series of dog safety and manners classes from Lander Pet Connection / Lander Pet Rescue aimed at helping owners gain better control of their pups on the trail.
“This training will help make the adoptions even more successful,” says Margie Rowell, treasurer for the Lander Pet Connection / Lander Pet Rescue. “We couldn’t have done this without the LOR Foundation Summer Spark funding.”
The funding even allowed parents to design activities that hadn’t been an option in years past. Jackie Olsson and her husband, Scott Olsson, for instance, are providing something completely new in a week-long chess camp at City Park. “Summer activities are so often sports which may feature a compound bow case,” Olsson says. “We are actually a pretty intellectual community, and I hope this can be an outlet for kids who are interested in all sorts of things. I hope we can capitalize on the diversity of the community.”
These Summer Spark activities and others offered through Parks and Rec (the department is still hosting the Sinks Canyon camp, movie nights, and kickball) begin in June and are spread throughout the summer. Lander residents can sign up via Parks and Rec or with the hosting organization; the prices and duration of each activity varies, and the full catalog is available on the Parks and Rec website.
“It’s been exciting to see the variety of skills Lander has to share,” Escudero says—a collection of talent and creativity that will bring a literal spark to the community and potentially transform summer programming for years to come.