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Friendly Neighborhood Rec Departments

Last year after our big Thanksgiving day celebration, my family walked over to the ball fields of Ted Wright Memorial Park for a holiday kickball tournament that pitted family members against family members — from the youngest (at six) to the oldest (in their eighties). As I rounded third base and headed for home plate, it hit me. Not only was I running toward home, I was at home. In that moment, I realized how much that little park, the recreation department, and rec league sports has meant to me through my fifty-something years, and will always mean to me.

I was just a little shadow of a girl when I followed my siblings into the wonderful world of sports in Warner Robins in the late Sixties. One of my earliest memories is of my brother, Andy, five years my senior, wearing a Raiders uniform and playing recreation league football on Saturday mornings on fields not far from our house. My older sister, Audrey, grabbed her pompoms and pulled on a green corduroy skirt that matched my brother’s uniform. She turned cartwheels and cheered our brother’s team to many victories. I became the team’s little mascot adding a dash of cuteness to the sidelines. I was too young to memorize the cheers and moves, but I loved standing in front of the crowd and trying.

I had a little rooster, and I sat him on the fence.

He crowed for the other team, ‘cause he had no sense.

Cock-cock-a-doodle-do. Cluck. Cluck.

Cock-cock-a-doodle-do. Cluck. Cluck.

Being a cheerleader was my first encounter in a childhood of recreation league sports and activities.

I followed my siblings into the world of high-top tennis shoes, onto the basketball courts of the city recreation department. I was six or seven when I played on my first rec ball team coached by Margie Gutierrez, whom I adored. We played a strange variation of the game of basketball, where the black line in the center of the court divided the teams into offensive and defensive players. One player, the rover, moved freely across the court, but the rest of us were stuck on one side or the other.

I loved playing basketball in that smelly, old gym with the ice-cold water fountain and pool tables in the lobby. I made friends. I learned how to follow instructions and work with others, and I learned how to give it my all, even when I was dog tired and thought I had no more in the tank to give.

After my parents moved our family to Bonaire, my siblings and I played baseball and softball for the Houston County Recreation Department. I spent many hours standing in the red clay infields at Ted Wright Memorial Park. It was known back then as Moody Road Park and only a ten minute walk from our house. As I waited to catch a fly ball or scoop up a grounder with my glove, the summer sun baked the freckles on my face and bleached out my hair to the color of Georgia cotton.

Hey batter, batter, batter, batter, SWING!

I learned how to take a few deep breaths to calm my nerves; the benefits of practice; how to work on skills to improve performance; how to never give up even in the face of impossible scores; how to endure mean comments and banter; and how to encourage and support others no matter what. When a teammate stood at the plate, we yelled, “You can do it,” and if a teammate went down swinging, we welcomed her back to the dugout, patted her on the back, and said, “That’s okay. You’ll get a hit next time.” No matter what sport we played, each game ended the same way — with both teams meeting in the center of the field or court to shake or slap hands and tell the other team members, “Good game.” Our parents and coaches expected us to exercise good sportsmanlike conduct. If we refused to exchange pleasantries with an opposing team member, well, there’d be hell to pay on the sideline and at home. Win or lose, the most important aspect of sports was the way we handled ourselves as winners, and as losers.

As a teenager, I was fortunate to be invited to work for Houston County Recreation Department as a scorekeeper, game official, concession stand worker, and secretary to the ever-so-even-keeled James Dodson, who is one of the kindest people who has ever walked the face of the earth. That’s a story for another day. I worked there for

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years, even returning in the summers when I was in college to announce batters and score ball games.

Whether playing ball for a recreation league or working at the recreation department to earn muchneeded money, the rec was a constant in my life for so many years, and I felt comfortable and happy there amid friends and coworkers of all backgrounds, income levels, races, religions, and ethnicities.

And so I give a shout out to youth sports and the friendly neighborhood recreation departments that enhance our communities.

It’s not just about competitive sports and physical fitness. It’s about filling time with fulfilling activities that keep kids out of trouble. It’s about molding children into strong, compassionate, capable adults. It’s about all of the life lessons that come with playing sports on recreation league teams. It’s about the nurturing climate and organic inclusiveness of the rec department experience.

Recreation departments matter — perhaps more now than ever.

L to R: Amber and her older sister Audrey.

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