Mesa, Arizona is booming with activity and a caring community of over half a million, the 37th largest city in the country. With almost 160 square miles, it is the perfect place to visit on a family vacation or even to consider calling home if looking for a change of scenery.
Mesa Parks has been at the forefront of the inclusive culture surrounding autism and cognitive disorders in Mesa, Arizona.
Over the years, Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities has undergone extensive improvements and is now a central point of pride and connection for the Mesa community. The facilities serve as popular attractions for visitors and local families alike.
Most recently, the organization has become the very first parks and recreation department in the world to become a Certified Autism Center through the CAC certification provided by IBCCES. This is playing a large role in helping the department support their vision of evolving their parks in a way that includes all members of the community and welcomes newcomers to the Mesa area.
Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities: 200+ Facilities of Different Types
The Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities Department is an expansive organization that oversees 205 parks, nine aquatic facilities, five recreation centers, two professional baseball stadiums, an 18-hole golf course, a convention center, a 5,000 seat amphitheater and the city cemetery. The organization is also responsible for the maintenance of all structures throughout the city including air conditioning, electrical, plumbing, and custodial needs. As a city with 4.5 million square feet of building space, the department definitely has its work cut out for it, but the team uses this as fuel to inspire new ideas, creativity and innovation within Mesa.
As Director of Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities, Marc Heirshberg has been at the forefront of many of the improvements and new ideas that the organization has taken on. His department includes approximately 210 full time employees along with seasonal and part time positions. During their peak seasons the department will usually oversee around 1,000 employees.
Marc has been with Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities since 2010 and has brought his background and experience in recreational therapy to create impactful changes throughout the department and the community of Mesa.
A Growing Community in Need of Parks and Recreation Activities
While the population of Mesa is extremely supportive of the organization now, the community has not always been in a position to place the parks as a top priority of the city.
During the 80s and 90s Mesa grew rapidly and the design of the community’s parks began to become very unoriginal, each looking very similar to the next. The parks did not provide any creative play options or unique benefits based on their specific locations. By the time Marc joined the department in 2010, there was not a significant amount of money to fund the maintenance of the parks due to the recession in 2008. However, Marc understood how important parks are in a community and how much they can add to a healthy, thriving city. He knew some critical changes had to be made.
Marc played an important role in revitalizing the city’s parks and other facilities. He advocated for the department and worked tirelessly to exemplify the benefits of having a strong parks and recreation department. He had a very clear vision that their department could play a huge role in making a great city even greater and he wanted to apply his experience in order to educate others on the importance of parks and how they can bring a community together.
2012: A Big Win For Mesa Parks
In 2012, a crowdsourcing program called iMesa was launched by the mayor of Mesa at the time. The goal of the program was to understand what people in the community wanted. It was discovered that there was a desire to focus on parks and recreation and to improve elements of the community in order to restore services that were in place before the recession and budget cuts occurred. This looked like promising news for the Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities Department.
In November of 2012 a $70 million dollar parks and recreation bond package was placed on the ballot. This was a huge request at the time due to the fact that Mesa’s demographics had not financially supported the initiatives of the department in the past.
Despite this, the request passed with a 56% approval rate, which was quite a success and indicative of the community taking its first step in the improvement of their parks. The department now had a real opportunity to start working with the community in order to re-imagine what the parks could become. Marc and his department took advantage of this situation to not only build new parks, but to reinvest in some of the older ones that had fallen to the wayside and desperately needed to be refreshed.
The Process of Revitalization
A perfect example of an incredible revitalization that took place occurred at Pioneer Park, the city’s oldest park. Located at the end of the Light Rail line, the public transit system, Pioneer Park had become a place for undesirable activity and people so it was largely going to waste. Marc and his team made it their mission to re-energize the park in order to establish it as one of the focal points of downtown Mesa.
Pioneer Park is a beautiful area that is home to several types of trees that are over 100 years old. The department wanted to create an opportunity for people to experience the height of the trees and to educate the public about the important role they play in maintaining a clean, healthy environment.
The revitalization of Pioneer Park involved adding different play surfaces, adding more colors to create a bright, lively atmosphere, adding a splash pad with a water wall that displays different images and messages, remodeled restrooms, two new basketball courts, restoration of the historic train and an additional 130 trees that had been planted.
These improvements encouraged an interest in conservation and rejuvenated this area of downtown Mesa. Pioneer Park is now a popular destination for tourists, families and anyone looking to enjoy a slice of nature amidst the downtown hustle and bustle.
Marc even recalls a story about a child who visited the park and exclaimed to his grandpa that “Pioneer Park was even better than Disneyland!” The child’s grandpa jokingly responded, “Well good because it’s a lot cheaper!”
New Parks Create New Possibilities
While refreshing existing parks was a crucial part of the department’s strategy, they were also able to create new sites and opportunities for the community.
One instance involved working with the students of one of the local elementary schools in order to design an environmental education park. The park acts as an outdoor classroom and contains both elements of play and education that the children can enjoy and learn from. The area even includes wifi!
Throughout the park there are different sections that focus on specific animals of the desert and there is a water pump where children can simulate how water moves down the mountains. Another favorite area of the park is the botanical walk where all of the plants are identified through labeling. The purpose of the park is to immerse children in the outdoors and create an environment that merges fun and learning to show that they can be one in the same.
Adaptive Programs Promote Inclusivity
Marc’s background in recreational therapy, along with other employees such as Lane Gram’s, has been very beneficial in creating improvements throughout the parks, recreation centers and other facilities for those who have disabilities. A priority for the department has been to provide the same opportunities for all community members regardless of their abilities. Many adaptive programs have been put into place including wheelchair basketball, soccer with motorized wheelchairs, unified basketball, summer camps with one-on-one care and even an off-Broadway program that involves working with a local school to partner theater students with students who have special needs so that they can work together and put on a play. This year the program has 67 students putting on the Little Mermaid for their community.
The adaptive programs have been a fantastic way to create an inclusive culture of fun and connection for everyone within the Mesa community. Beth Rusk, an athlete and participant in the adaptive programs, says, “I love being a part of Team Mesa! We have fun and the coaches are amazing!”
These programs have also been very effective in encouraging people of all backgrounds to interact, work with one another and push themselves and each other to grow together. Stephen Binning, a wheelchair track athlete and assistant coach, says, “Last season was great! Almost everyone had personal best times and I can’t wait to see even more improvement next year!” The adaptive programs provide a support system and close-knit community that many people might not have otherwise.
Small Improvements Can Have the Biggest Impact
Along with the adaptive programs, Marc and his department have implemented numerous sensory elements into Mesa’s parks and facilities. These sensory elements can be helpful and calming for individuals who are on the spectrum or have other disabilities and they make the parks interesting and unique. The department wanted to focus on adding elements that recognize as many different sensory functions in the park setting as possible so that they could accommodate the needs of the maximum number of people.
For example, in Riverview Park there is different surfacing throughout such as concrete, rolling hills of grass, colored concrete, rubbery surfaces and areas that emulate a boardwalk. The different surfaces can be soothing for individuals who have autism and exciting for children to experience. Quiet spaces have been added along with “cozy cocoons”, which are spaces individuals can use to get away and have a moment to themselves. The park has also incorporated sign language and braille to make navigation simple and effortless.
Another new feature that was added is known as an expression swing. The swing allow the infant to swing on one side and the adult is able to swing on the other. This style of swing encourages interaction between the adult and child and can be a much more rewarding, beneficial experience than traditional swings. Other improvements such as a zip line with a chair on one side so those with disabilities can experience the sensation of zip lining, a small playground, sensory items to touch throughout the park, a sand digging area with fossils and artifacts and fences around the splash pads to protect children from running off have also been added.
Perhaps one of the most popular areas of Riverview Park is the 50 foot rope tower designed to test the climber’s natural abilities and automatically catches anyone who slips. It is the perfect play area and parents don’t have to worry about their children getting hurt.
Valencia, a Riverview Park visitor, shares her thoughts on the improvements that have been made thanks to Marc and his team. She says, “Gosh this place is a gift. High quality play structures with soft rubber landings, a fun and safe zip line, covered patio areas with picnic tables both adult and kiddie sized, a splash pad for all ages that is fenced in for safety and escape artists under three feet tall. Huge vast green spaces for running, playing catch, kicking the ball, flying a kite and all those other fun things you do at the park. Nice running paths around the park, which are also great for scooters. Parking can be challenging, but hey you’re there for exercise anyway. Plan to spend some time there, bring a picnic lunch, your sunscreen and water. Happy playing!”
Marc and the rest of his department are proud of the improvements they have made and look forward to making the parks better and better every day. He says, “Changes like these were implemented in order to become the fabric of our community and to build on the notion of providing a boundless city and creating opportunities for all regardless of their ability, age, socio demographics and any other label. While the parks have been carefully designed with intention, the goal of the department has been to naturally integrate these aspects into the community.”
Mesa Parks Are Creating Buzz
The improvements that have been made since 2010 have created a significant impact within the community. Marc recalls driving by parks in the past that were completely empty and lifeless. Now when he drives throughout Mesa he notices the parks are constantly packed. The department has also seen their parks being used in campaigns on social media and referenced by bloggers. It is clear that the parks have become highly valued aspects of the Mesa community. There has even been talk from elected officials discussing the relocation of companies and building of new businesses in Mesa and the parks have been one of the factors contributing to Mesa’s attractiveness as a desired location.
In November of 2018 the community approved another bond package, this time for $111 million dollars towards parks and culture. The strong support from the voters was a clear indication that the revitalization of the parks has made a positive impact and shifted parks to the top of people’s lists when it came to what was important in Mesa. People were realizing that the parks are a big part of what brings them together and creates a sense of family within the community.
A Leader in Autism Awareness
As the first parks and recreation department in the world to become a Certified Autism Center (CAC), Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities has taken a giant leap in becoming a leader for other organizations to follow suit and begin providing individuals on the spectrum with parks and facilities they can enjoy comfortably and safely.
The department has certified 250 employees to begin with, including many of their front line staff who interact with the community on a daily basis. This includes employees at the summer camps, swim lesson instructors, coordinators of after-school programs at recreation centers, coordinators of the adaptive programs, event-planning staff at the convention center, sales staff, lifeguards, park rangers, day camp staff, and front desk personnel at the recreation centers.
Since the median age of many of their staff is around 17, Marc and his team saw the opportunity to become a CAC as an important chance to provide these young employees with life-long learning. By giving them the skills to interact with people who have disabilities it eliminates the fear of connecting and makes them comfortable to assist this population while providing a thorough understanding of what they’re going through and how best to help.
The full time recreation center supervisor staff and therapeutic recreation center staff have completed a more intense training so that they are able to instill knowledge within their staff and provide a foundation for them to use as support when handling challenging situations.
The certification also included facility audits. These have taken place at Riverview Park, Dobson Ranch Park, Desert Arroyo Park, Pioneer Park, Skyline Aquatic Complex and the city’s convention center. The department has plans to expand this to the baseball stadiums as well.
Throughout the certification process the employee feedback has been incredibly positive. They are glad to be a part of a department that is leading in this effort and following an initiative that so many people can relate to. Almost everyone is impacted by autism in some way whether it means being on the spectrum themselves or knowing a friend, neighbor or loved one who is. The certification has created a sense of pride and empathy among the department’s employees.
Hanna Gruver-Green, a parent and Mesa community member, comments, “This is the most autism friendly city in the world. The community has rallied around the autism population and their families in such an unbelievable way.” The Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities Department is ecstatic to be a part of the community and a major leader in creating an open, inclusive environment for each and every member.
Why Autism Certification Matters
It was important for the department to become a CAC so that they could naturally integrate inclusivity throughout the community while bringing more education to their staff and community about what they are doing and why. They believe that the CAC is making them a stronger and better community that is more welcoming, engaging and able to provide services for anyone who lives in Mesa or visits. The certification has reinforced and highlighted all of the hard work that they department has been doing over the years.
Being the first parks and recreation department that is a CAC will put Marc’s department on the map when it comes to families who are on the spectrum. As Denise Resnik, the founder of First Place, a residential community development for adults on the spectrum, says, “There’s a short list when a family has a child with autism of what you do on your summer vacation or your holiday. I’m super excited to think that Mesa will rise to the top in terms of being a destination, a place where families can create new memories and have new experiences.”
Lane Gram, the Recreation Supervisor, shares in Marc’s excitement about becoming a CAC as well. With a background working as a recreational therapist for 20 years, Lane is no stranger to working with people who have disabilities. In the past she has found that many of her employees would come to her for support in these situations, but with the certification they now feel more confident and prepared to handle them on their own. She comments, “This is just one more step to make our employees feel more comfortable and confident and also make the parents feel more comfortable leaving their child with us at our programs.”
Igniting a Spark to Inspire Others
The Mesa Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities Department has made significant strides in the last nine years. From creating new parks with beneficial sensory elements to revitalizing old parks to bring the community together and becoming the first parks and recreation department to be certified in autism, the department is setting a high standard for parks all over the world when it comes to innovation, creativity and inclusivity. Lane says, “I’m excited for people to know that this is a community that’s so open and so inclusive and that puts a lot of extra effort into the design of the parks, recreation centers and training of our staff.”
The magnificent impact of the department’s efforts is evident in the thriving community of Mesa and the welcoming culture you can find there. Marc and his team are looking forward to other organizations around the globe becoming a part of the initiative to develop beautiful parks, programs and services that anyone and everyone can enjoy and participate in.