Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 10
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
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All In A Day’s Work

(Photo by Ellen Gilbert)
First and foremost, recreation presents the perfect tool for teaching children and adults good ethical values, particularly how to approach an objective as a team. I don’t get wrapped up very much in parents who are developing kids to be Division I athletes; that’s not very important to me. What’s more important to me is the child who’s not an athlete who, at the end of the year, says “Gosh, I had fun. I want to do this again.”
—Princeton Recreation Department Director Jack Roberts

Ellen Gilbert

I was raised in Montclair where I worked summers for the Recreation Department. I had just finished a tour of duty in the army in 1970 when I was hired to be assistant director by then-Director Don Barr. I served in that capacity for almost 19 years. Don retired in 1989, and I’ve been the director ever since. When I started there was Don, myself, and one secretary in a small room. The department had begun in 1965, and when I came on we had the pool, the tennis courts, and Community Park South. We’ve obviously grown a lot.

Recreation is an odd bird. It’s probably the least likely business to follow a nine-to-five format. I’m blessed with a wonderful support staff; I don’t have to tell them what to do. They’re pretty autonomous, and they head off on their own and get the job done at least as well as I could do it and sometimes better. I find that the older I get, the broader the brush I paint with. I’m pretty good at being creative at how to do marketing and how to look at the bigger policy pictures, so it’s good that they do the detail work. I am the great proselytizer of recreation.

We have a revolving trust account and we manage all our money ourselves. We operate, to some extent, like a small business, so we can adjust our fees accordingly. I also run the financial aid program in the summer, which reaches some 50 to 60 families, and that’s something that I do personally. The key is to get kids off the curb; we want parents to be responsible and to pay something, but if they can’t, we’re not going to punish the kids. Princeton Community Village has been a fabulous partner; we have subsidy money from them, and we have outreach programs with Corner House.

We collaborate with anyone and everyone. We don’t really care whether our name gets mentioned; the bottom line is getting people out to do things, and getting people to realize the incredible value of recreation and exercise. All we want is to be a facilitator; that’s really what we do from this office.

The skate park is a great success: very well-planned, very well-designed. Ted Ernst, my assistant, had a lot to do with developing the park, and Program Supervisor Ben Stentz runs it. Under an agreement with Decked [the skateboard equipment store], kids do community service there on weekends.

If I was to pick a municipal agency that’s my very best friend I would have to say it’s the Township Engineering Department, headed by Bob Kiser. Day in and day out, they spend time taking care of all of our capital projects. Bob Kiser is the best partner you could have, and his staff is wonderful.

Crunch Time

In the spring this place is absolute mayhem. From March 1 to July 1 it’s insane — and great. The day goes so quickly. We have people coming through the door with registrations for all the programs we offer. We hire about 160 part-timers to work in the day camp and at the pool during the summer; I think that we’re the biggest youth employer in town. We teach these kids skills: how to shake hands, how to fill out an application, how to be responsible for their actions. They’re evaluated, and if they do a good a job for us, we write one heck of a good reference for them for college or wherever they’re heading.

The swim program is great. Kids come up through the ranks, learning how to swim, becoming Bluefish, and often later becoming lifeguards. It’s another one of those programs — like basketball — where if it wasn’t for volunteers and staff, we wouldn’t be able to do it. It takes a tremendous amount of organization — there are 160 kids swimming out there at times — to do it. The program runs without a flaw for the whole season; I just show up for a meet and look like I know what I’m doing. We were blessed to have the Hand family participate in the program. At a very young age, Emily became the head coach, and passed it off to her brother, Matt, who did an absolutely wonderful job, who passed it off to “Daddy” Hand, Greg, who has done a magnificent job for us. Peter, the younger son, coached for us too and did a wonderful job. This last summer when Greg took a sabbatical, Amy Colman took the reins and was terrific.

Doing, and Needing, More

Doing sports should be life-long. You should find your passion and enter into that pursuit. Those pursuits should be offered in a municipal setting, so it’s very frustrating that we have packaged kids’ lives so extensively, and we haven’t done as good a job with adults because we don’t have the facilities to do it. It bothers us that we can’t provide more adult drop-in activities and recreation. We probably have nearly 300 Hispanic adults who would love to play soccer. We can’t provide for them the kind of facility that we’d like to.

We need a community center. It’s interesting that this Recreation Department doesn’t have a building it can call its own. I’m not saying that it has to be totally municipal; I would partner with anyone if there was a way to get additional gym space and to provide the kind of 12-months-a-year creative programming that’s needed in this town. The University has been a great partner. If it wasn’t for Dillon gym, I don’t know if we’d be able to have our basketball program, which involves 500 kids. But the university’s schedule is becoming more and more pinched every year because of their own obligations, so we are really crying out for space. Sooner or later something has to give as far as having some indoor space. The Valley Road building is a possibility. Having Corner House and the Recreation Department in the same place would be great. There’s a tremendous amount of overlap; they already have a dodgeball competition. If we were together, Gary De Blasio [Corner House’s Executive Director] would be in our gyms, and we’d be in his classrooms.

Consolidation of the Borough and Township would be helpful to the Recreation Department, so we could answer to one government, rather than two. It’s good, though, that the Recreation Board is my boss; they hire the Recreation Director, and the whole reason for that is just this issue: there is a governing body that buffers any conflicts that might arise between the Township and the Borough.

The next meeting to discuss the future of the pool will be Wednesday, February 4, at 7 p.m. in Township Hall. Our architects will be coming back with some very basic plans to show the community where we are at this point. There’s nothing new on financing. There is a line item budget for $7 million for a restored pool in this year’s capital request. So the Borough and Township governments have it on their table and they’re going to have to look at it. This is the worst of times to be talking about it, but we need to talk about it.

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