Learning by Doing: Planning Public Events
Future recreation administration professionals get immersive experience in their field by hosting events with local partners
Imagine communities gathering in Texas’ public spaces. Imagine field days, concerts in the park, family fun-runs and the town picnic. For some people, imagining these events and turning them into reality is their job. Professionals in city, county, state and national parks departments do this work every day, and a class in Texas State’s recreation administration program gives students a hands-on look at what it takes.
The goal of the “Advanced Recreation Program Development” course is for juniors and seniors to apply the skills they’ve learned in their major by partnering with real recreation agencies in the region. From scratch, the students come up with an idea, consider issues like target audience and risk management, and host an event at a local park or other facility, getting guidance as needed from their agency advisors.
This semester’s instructor was Rebecca Manning, parks director for the City of Wimberley. “I was really excited about the ideas that they brought me,” she says of the students, “and they were very excited about the group of agencies that we have.”
Early in the spring semester, Manning organized a “pitch day”: a time for the student teams to present their proposed events to all the participating agencies. The agency staff would then consider which ideas best fit their facilities, and whether they’d need any adjustments, before choosing a student team to partner with.
Eight agencies attended the pitch day: parks and recreation departments from Hays County, New Braunfels, San Marcos and Wimberley; Lockhart State Park; the City of San Marcos’ Main Street Program and Neighborhood Enhancement program; and Texas State’s Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. “You’re providing invaluable experience for the students by being here,” Manning told the assembled experts.
One by one, the student teams entered the room to pitch their ideas. They talked through their proposals, including their event’s schedule, target audience, activities or performances, food options, potential fees or registration system, projected budget, and any specific constraints on the type of location they would need to put on the event.
Questions from the agencies flew thick and fast: “Would this be open to the public, or would you do a registration so that you could get a group and have an organized rotation?” “With this being an outdoor event, have y’all thought about what would happen in bad weather?” “How are you planning to emphasize these Leave No Trace principles?” “Have y’all given any consideration to seating and parking?” The agency staff also offered comments based on their experience: “When I book a live band, I’m not just looking at paying the band — I’m looking at speakers and sound tech, lighting, the stage.”
The students responded by showing the legwork they’d already done: identifying potential sponsors, relating their event ideas to gaps or patterns in existing local programs, and proactively addressing concerns like litter prevention and safety.
When all the students had pitched their program ideas, the agency staff made their choices for who to work with. After some back-and-forth regarding logistics — “We could also do Group 3 or Group 5.” “We’re not set up for this at our facilities” — every student group had an agency partner. It was time to start the real planning.
For the remainder of the course, students and agencies worked together on the logistics of their events. They worked on marketing, scheduling, confirming performers and vendors, and completing any necessary paperwork. Finally, event day arrived for each group.
Concert in the Park
The group composed of Mel Kite, Justin Menchaca, Pat Oyston and Cassidy Schmidt held an outdoor concert in New Braunfels. They experienced the snag that every parks and recreation department staffer encounters sooner or later: weather.
“We didn’t know if we could do the event until literally hours before,” says Schmidt, “so preparing to cancel was stressful.” Luckily, the afternoon brought blue skies, and the event proceeded as planned. Before the performance, families enjoyed games, snacks and decorating the venue with chalk drawings.
Talking about their preparations in class helped the students stay on track. Notes Menchaca: “Hearing the progress of other groups made sure that we were on top of things like the others.” But he says that “Probably the most valuable moment of this event was actually watching the whole program come to life and seeing the people participate in it.”
“This is the second semester that we have had the privilege of working with students on their special projects,” says Geronimo Aguirre, parks and recreation manager at the City of New Braunfels. “It has been an incredible experience to be a part of. Over the past few years I have been directly involved with the recruitment and retention of recreation students. This effort has always been near and dear to my heart. The partnering agency gets valuable exposure to a new crop of recreation administration professionals that could benefit their agency in the future. We are always looking for new and exciting ways to stay engaged with our future leaders. This program is definitely a win-win situation for everyone involved.”
Star Wars Movie Night
The group assigned to work with Wimberley Parks and Recreation was composed of Cory Brown, Riley Cassidy, Tim Galliardt and Halie Stuntz. For their movie night in early May, they chose to show a recent Star Wars film (as the saying goes: May the fourth be with you!).
“A challenge we had to consider was a plan to keep our guests entertained from 6:30 pm to 7:30 pm, from the beginning of the event to the start of the movie,” explains Stuntz. They settled on face-painting, lawn games and a themed costume contest.
The group’s advisor was Richard Shaver, program coordinator and operations manager for the parks department, himself a Texas State alumnus from the Recreation Administration program. “I remember taking this class,” he says, “so for me, I am now a mentor where I used to be a mentee and it has become a really fulfilling experience. I am trying my best to give these students the opportunity to not only put on a successful program, but to see how a parks and recreation agency operates, so they can take this knowledge and apply it to their internships and future careers. We are a very small and limited staff so from an agency’s perspective, these students can help us really put on an impressive and successful event.”
Trying New Outdoor Activities
A potential barrier to getting more people involved in the outdoors is lack of knowledge. If you’ve never been hiking or camping, you might not feel equipped to try it. One group of students tackled this issue by planning a “demo day” during which participants could learn new skills in a casual but educational environment. “When we were brainstorming for our program, we wanted to have a lasting impact on the community,” says group member Devyn Hogue. Teaching people skills that they can carry into the future fit the bill.
Hogue’s fellow group members were Caylie Houchin, Todor Ivanov and Jordan VanAuken. They incorporated their outdoors demonstrations into an Earth Day event hosted by their agency partner, The Meadows Center. During Earth Day, event attendees tried their hands at casting a fly-fishing rod, setting up a tent, tying knots, properly packing a backpack and more.
Rob Dussler, chief education officer at The Meadows Center, was the group’s agency advisor. “I participated in the class because I believe in the value of recreation and experiential learning,” explains Dussler. “The Recreation Administration program at Texas State University is actively making a difference in the lives of students and communities. I am grateful to be a part of this valuable program and delighted to work with such thoughtful and engaged students.”
Movie in the Park
The students hosted by Lockhart State Park — Tatsuya Fukuda, Jake Gonelli, Brandon Tobias and Emanuel Zepeda — chose to show a movie.
“This is my first class actually working with professionals and getting to see behind the scenes of preparation,” says Fukuda. “Since we learned from step one to actual facilitating, such as getting sponsorship and going through legal paperwork, I’m confident now to suggest events and run them without hesitation.”
“We viewed this class as an opportunity to expand our program repertoire,” says Lauren Hartwick, park interpreter, who interacts daily with park visitors. “We were hoping that this opportunity would help us connect with some young people in the recreation field who may be interested in working for or volunteering for state parks."
Family Fun-Run Obstacle Course
For their event, Aubrey McWilliams, Alexander Smith and Kiersten Stiers set up an obstacle course at Five Mile Dam Park in San Marcos. Families participated in sack races, tug-of-war and a variety of other creative challenging games.
“We learned about time management, working in teams, and taking constructive criticism,” reports McWilliams. The biggest hurdle? Finding activities that kids from two years old to 13 not only could do, but would enjoy doing. From the outset, this group wanted to be inclusive, making sure that participants could join in on the fun no matter their abilities.
The group’s mentors at the City of San Marcos were Catherine Marler, youth services coordinator, and Jessica Ramos, youth services manager. Says Ramos, “It is nice to see the students coming to us with some experience with planning events. We have a long-standing relationship with the recreation classes at Texas State (I was a student there years ago!) and we enjoy contributing to their learning experiences.” ⭑