RESPECT DIVERSITY, AND YOUR PROGRAMS WILL DELIVER UNITY
Michael I. Udine
When I came to Parkland 17 years ago, this small Floridian city was known as a great place to raise a family.
I had grown up in the area so I knew about the city’s schools, its pristine stucco and stone homes, and tourist-attracting golf courses and parks. Until the late 1990s, Parkland–it’s about a 15-minutes drive from Boca Raton–did not even have any stores or traffic lights.
But by 2006, when I became mayor, we were already growing fast. In the last decade we’ve added some 8,000 people–today’s population is between 24,000 and 25,000–and we’ll probably add another 8,000 residents in the next 10 years.
About five years ago, our civic and business leaders began to realize that being an attractive community for families with school-age children was not enough. We wanted to be known as a great community for people of all ages. We wanted everybody to feel a sense of inclusion, which meant we needed to focus more on offering programs and activities for multiple generations.
So step by step, we began to create an intergenerational approach to everything we did. We talked about it in department meetings; we wove it into all our decision-making, making it a priority to include everybody in everything we did as a community. We knew it would take leadership in city hall, but it would also requirement the involvement of hundreds of volunteers.
Here, then, are some of the initiatives we’ve created:
Book It! This summer reading program is offered to young camp children at a local elementary school and middle school. Once a week, senior volunteers, age 50 and older, read books to children that are related to the camp theme for that day or week.
Volunteer Speak. Once a month, senior volunteers get together with teenage volunteers at their Teen Advisory Group (TAG) meeting. This is an opportunity for seniors who have spent years volunteering for nonprofit organizations or specific causes to share their experiences with teens just getting ready to become volunteers themselves.
Computer Tutors. The Parks and Recreation Department is in the process of providing computer tutors to residents of the Aston Gardens retirement community. This project will match up computer-savvy high school students with individual residents at the facility, helping these seniors learn how to use computers and other high-tech devices. Our goal is to challenge stereotypical views of tech-phobic seniors, reducing the “digital divide” between young and old, creating better understanding and respect through interaction between the generations.
Video Gaming. The Parks and Recreation Department also plans to provide video games for seniors residents throughout the city, with the help of local students. Games give seniors a chance to challenge their memories, sharpen their critical thinking and get physical exercise. We know that seniors will no doubt continue playing their domino and card games, but we also believe they’ll enjoy adding some new games to their repertoire.
One more initiative worth noting: Parkland Buddy Sports, a not-for-profit organization that offers sports programs for special needs children and young adults. Regardless of the mental and/or physical diagnosis, the Buddy program welcomes children ages 4 to young adult. The programs consist of weekly activities and games in sports such as soccer, basketball and flag football–the flag football team was recognized a few years ago by Sports Illustrated Kids as the magazine’s “Youth Football Team of the Year.”
Each special needs player is paired for the season with their own “Buddy,” who in most instances is a student volunteer. Our players live for that one hour each week when they come out for Game Day. And what’s truly remarkable is not just the feedback from the players’ families, but the heartfelt reaction from our student and adult volunteers.
There’s no question that it takes more effort to ensure that such community programs are inclusive. But we need to find ways to respect the needs of diverse constituencies, and in the end, through such diversity our communities will become much more cohesive.
Michael Udine is the Mayor of Parkland, Florida and a Partner at the law firm of Udine & Udine. Parkland was recently honored as one of the four Best Intergenerational Communities nationwide by Generations United (www.gu.org), and the MetLife Foundation. To learn more about Parkland’s innovative programs, visit www.cityofparkland.org or contact Mayor Udine at MUdine@cityofparkland.org.