Carried down from New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock during the last ice age, Rollstone Boulder now sits in the Fitchburg’s upper Common. This giant rock provides the name of one of Fun n’ Fitchburg’s initiatives to move the needle backward on the city’s childhood obesity rate. Rock with Fun ‘n Fitchburg is a media campaign designed to raise awareness of and change perceptions of the city’s 39 parks. Through the Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities assessment phase, the Fitchburg partnership discovered that residents perceived the city’s parks as unsafe and that some people were unaware of where the parks were located. The city has many parks that could be used more fully. With that in mind, Rock with Fun ‘n FITchburg seeks to improve awareness and perceptions of Fitchburg’s parks.
Adopt A Park
Because HKHC is focused on childhood obesity, Rock with Fun ‘n FITchburg is being spearheaded by Fun ‘n FITchburg’s established youth leaders. Each week, two of the youth leaders are visiting a park to conduct short interviews with people doing physical activity at the park and to take pictures of these active Fitchburg residents. Interview findings will be incorporated into future planning by the Parks Board, while the photos, which comprise the visual aspect of the media campaign, will be posted on Fun ‘n Fitchburg’s website and in the local library.
At the same time as the media campaign has taken off, Fun ‘n FITchburg has started collaborating with the Parks Board to develop an Adopt-A-Park program. Initially, Fun ‘n FITchburg members and Parks Board members were simply attending each others’ meetings. Since then the relationship between the groups has become mutually supportive. For example, Fun ‘n FITchburg has been able to supply the Parks Board with useful data from the walk audits and parks assessments completed earlier in the HKHC grant period, such as priority areas for sidewalks leading into parks, and other information pertinent to creating safe and sought after open spaces in Fitchburg. The Parks Board in turn has become an active contributor at the Fun ‘n Fitchburg community partnership meetings and has quickly addressed concerns identified in the parks.
During one of the Parks Board meetings, a local Muslim organization offered to “adopt” the Riverfront Park. According to Ayn Yeagle, HKHC Project Evaluator, Fun ‘n FITchburg “jumped on that idea. We began researching other Memorandum of Understandings for Adopt-A-Park programs and introduced a model MOU to the Parks Board.” The Adopt-A-Park program is a win-win for everyone – another way for the two groups can collaborate and help each other improve the city’s parks. The Parks Board is made up of five volunteers and one Parks Director, so enlisting community help to clean up the parks will both raise awareness as well as leverage scarce park resources. As part of Rock with Fun ‘n FITchburg, there will be a call to action to adopt a park.
The Adopt-A-Park program also addresses community concerns about parks safety. When Fun ‘n FITchburg worked with police to compile crime data in the city’s parks, it turned out that there was little crime being reported in the parks. In fact, the parks in the city are quite safe. But one very real concern for potential park users is the general upkeep and vandalism of the parks. Engaging residents in the clean-up and maintenance of local parks provides another set of eyes on the parks – making them feel safer – and also provides the valued services of trash clean up and repairs from vandalism. When the parks seem cared for and well-used, perceptions of the parks will shift. Adopting a park also institutes a formal systems change with community members reporting any unusual behavior they see in the park to the local authorities. This adds resources for the City’s police department, which is already working overtime to care for Fitchburg’s residents.
Fun ‘n FITchburg’s Mary Giannetti and Ayn Yeagle discussed three main takeaways from their work on parks. First, it is essential to engage a diverse group of stakeholders and have a broad partnership. Fun ‘n FITchburg has seen how this can provide enormous benefits through its work with groups and leaders as diverse as the Board of Health, Department of Public Works (DPW), police officers, the Parks Board, and the Fitchburg Food Service Director, who directs the Summer feeding program that operates within Parks and Recreation. Through these partnerships, important information is obtained. For example, having the Department of Public Works (DPW) representative working with the partnership has helped the group learn about local policy guiding sidewalk construction. Having all the players at the same table allows everyone to see the big picture and how the pieces fit together.
Ayn Yeagle and Mary Giannetti also talked about the importance of getting involved in projects that are important to partners, such as neighborhood issues, or reciprocating by joining a committee that is integral to a partner’s work.
Finally, involving youth in these projects that are focused on childhood obesity is crucial. Youth perceptions of policies and environments can guide the partnership’s work and make it more effective. This project is for the kids, after all – and should be. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the most recent BMI statistics collected for children in grades 1, 4, 7, and 10 across the state indicate that Fitchburg has the second highest prevalence of overweight and obesity in the state at 46.2%. The health issue is sobering, but the parks work is exciting and the momentum is continuing to build for creating safe and sought after parks.