And the winner is… the Park District of Oak Park for the 2015 National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management in the Class IV Division.

Executive director Jan Arnold, director of marketing and customer services Diane Stanke and six others from the park district staff, along with park board president Paul Aeschleman and secretary Sandy Lentz, attended the National Recreation and Park Association annual conference Sept. 15 in Nevada.

“This is like winning an Oscar in our industry. It’s the biggest honor you can achieve,” Stanke said. “So many people played a part in winning this award. 

“We have had 19 park planning projects, opened the GRC (Gymnastics and Recreation Center in 2013), had major renovations done at the Ridgeland Common Recreation Complex and several other projects completed in order to improve our parks and facilities for residents.”

According to Stanke, $5.6 million (including $2.8 million from grants) have been spent over the last five years for park renovations at Lindberg, Taylor, Scoville and Mills along with smaller improvements at Carroll, Fox and Longfellow.

The park district has also more than tripled the amount of funds it has given away through its scholarship program, upgraded its website and excelled in community outreach. Oak Park is only one of four park districts in Illinois that has earned both state and national accreditation as well as the gold medal award. 

“This is something that didn’t happen overnight,” Arnold said. “The park district has been building upon itself for the last 10 years. In the early 2000s, an infrastructure committee was put together to determine the needs for our parks. The progress we have made since then shows what the park district staff, board members, volunteers and the community working together can do.

“Being awarded the gold medal is a huge honor. It also shows that we are leader in the (parks and recreation) industry and we are setting the mark for other park districts to follow.”

 For only the second time in 49 years, the park district was awarded a National Gold Medal. Oak Park won its first in 1966 and also was nominated in 1965, the inaugural year of the NRPA awards.

 “It was a huge surprise and a great honor to attend the conference with the park district staff and Sandy,” Aeschleman said. “We were kind of sitting in the middle (during the awards presentation) and we weren’t sure what was going to happen.

 “To be chosen among the elite in parks and recreation agencies across the country as the winner of the National Gold Medal award is a proud and historic moment in park district history,” Aeschleman added. “With the support of the Oak Park community and the hard work and dedication of the park district staff, volunteers and park board, we’ve been able to offer innovative programming, expand our scholarship program, open doors to multiple new facilities, and lay the groundwork for future success.”

Arnold concurs with Aeschleman’s assessment of substantial progress and a bright future. Resting on its laurels isn’t part of the park district’s master plan.

“I tell my staff all the time I’m looking continuous improvement not perfection,” she said. “We can always find ways to improve the park district for our residents. What motivates our staff is finding ways to get people more engaged in healthy lifestyles and providing them opportunities to enjoy our parks and facilities.”

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Marty Farmer

The Illinois Press Association recently honored Marty with the 1st & 2nd Place Awards for Best Sports Feature for his article He's in an Oak Park state of mind: Former OPRF star Iman Shumpert returns...

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