Mary Ann West marches in sync with her classmates in the lazy river channel at the Blue Valley Recreation Activity Center pool. Every so often, her arms reach overhead in a wheat-waving motion. She’s smiling, chatting, having fun, practicing good health … and three years ago, she could not have imagined this day.
Back then, lying face down on her kitchen floor with three herniated discs in her back, West wondered if she would ever walk normally again.
When her surgeon suggested water exercise an alternative to the scalpel, West shot back, “You have to understand, I don’t know how to swim.”
No matter, she was told. Get wet.
So West, who after eight months of physical therapy had burned through her insurance, started looking for a place to make a splash. She found an advertisement for a water aerobics class for baby boomers at Blue Valley Rec and took the plunge.
“I was ready to ride off into the sunset — the nursing home with the fuzzy slippers,” says West, 65.
“Forget it,” she says. “I come here, I’m with other people having fun … It’s the most fun I have all day.”
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The same could no doubt be said for the multitude of children, preteens, teens, parents and grandparents passing through the glass doors at the Blue Valley Rec complex on 151st Street on a recent summer morning.
They’re headed to the pools, gymnastics room, dance studio or one of several classrooms. Some come for their one-hour activity, or three-hour camp, or open swim, or lesson.
The bustle never stops.
“I’ve been there on those kinds of days, and it’s just fun to see all the activity, the kids running through there,” said Doug Vance, executive director of the Kansas Recreation and Parks Association. “It’s safe to say, Blue Valley Rec is one of our more active members.”
With 111 activities scheduled on this day, not including a packed youth sports league docket in the evening, traffic will be heavy from dawn to beyond dusk, said Dawn Harmon, BV Rec’s marketing supervisor.
“It’s always busy,” Harmon said.
With numbers like these, how can it not be? In 2011, BV Rec processed 84,952 registration forms.
The total number of registrations last year was about 15,000 more than 2010. Total enrollment in 2006, when BV Rec celebrated its 20th birthday, was about 30,000.
“To think of the growth over the years, it’s amazing,” said Lou Wade, who started coaching his son’s baseball team in the late 1980s and is chairman of the Blue Valley Recreation Commission.
Blue Valley Rec serves residents not of a city or county but a school district, which means its primary patrons can live in Overland Park, Stilwell, Leawood — anywhere a person in the 91-square mile Blue Valley School District might reside.
Seven commissioners fill out staggered four-year terms, with two apiece representing the three geographical sections of the school district and the fourth serving as an at-large commissioner.
The whole thing was started to fill a need.
In 1986, as Johnson County’s population growth accelerated south of Interstate 435, residents grew tired of heading to the north part of the county for activities. A petition led to Blue Valley voters’ approval of a new recreation commission that would work in cooperation with Blue Valley schools. The district opens its facilities — middle and elementary school basketball courts, ball fields for practice, high school performing arts centers — for BV Rec programs.
About 55 percent of the $9 million general budget for 2011-12 comes from user fees such as registration, concessions and admission fees for tournaments.
The rest comes primarily from property taxes. After a mill levy increase for 2011-12, the first in four years, the owner of a $200,000 home pays about $62 to Blue Valley Rec.
The increase was twofold, Wade said, funding infrastructure improvements and completion of the final phase of a master facility plan, an all-purpose indoor structure that will include space for basketball, dance, exercise and a track.
“It’s one of our biggest needs,” Wade said.
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The first two phases of the plan, completed in 2008, marked a pivot point in BV Rec’s growth.
After a year delay, the aquatics center opened to rave reviews with 94 percent of survey respondents rating their experiences as good or excellent. The $4.8 million center is part of the Activity Center and features two pools: a lap pool and a zero-depth entry pool.
From a handful of ball fields off 137th Street originally known as Miller’s Woods, 24 baseball and softball fields now stretch from Antioch Road to across Switzer Road and border the Overland Park Soccer Complex.
The property spills across 137th with additional manicured fields that were built on pasture that once served as youth football and soccer practice fields, with cones for goals and boundaries.
On nearly any summer night, the lights blaze at the complex. One highlight: it’s where the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association holds its annual conference tournament.
These scenes and BV Rec’s participation statistics and philosophy brought a surprising honor from Sports Illustrated. As part of its state-by-state profile of sports in 2003, the magazine identified the top sports town or community in each state.
In Missouri, the magazine selected Springfield and Greene County for its variety of sports offerings. For Kansas, Sports Illustrated selected not a town or community, but Blue Valley Rec, saying, “While the BVRC’s singular focus on the value of participation is enough to set it apart as a model agency, the commission’s programs and ability to meet the needs of the area’s residents — along with its values — have earned the BVRC the title of Sports Illustrated Sportstown for the Sunflower State.”
Wade said the commission was humbled by the national publicity, “but the best part was we didn’t sit on our laurels,” he said. “We kept working to make things better.”
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BV Rec’s mission falls in line with other area organizations, and there are plenty of them in the area, such as Johnson County Parks and Recreation and parks and recreation departments in Olathe, Leawood, Shawnee and Lenexa. Each offers an abundance of programs, pools, trails, classes and activities for all ages.
“It’s about enhancing the quality of life for everybody,” said Bob Johnson of Leawood, the chairman of the National Recreation and Parks Association’s board of directors.
The Virginia-based association advocates for parks, recreation and environmental conservation through awareness and supporting legislation, with a guiding principle of improving physical and mental health.
Fun is an essential part of the package.
National organizations produce frightening statistics. One in three young people between the ages of 2 and 19 is overweight or obese, and overweight adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight as an adult, according to the American Heart Institute.
Kids between 8 and 18 watch about four hours of television each day and spend two more hours with electronics like video games, according to kidshealth.org.
“Then you start looking at health care costs associated with obesity,” Johnson said.
According to a 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, America spends as much as $147 billion annually on the direct and indirect costs of obesity.
Johnson wasn’t thinking about any of this years ago when he entered the recreation world by volunteering to coach his daughter’s youth basketball team. Turns out, there were enough girls at Leawood Elementary to have more than one team in the Blue Valley Rec league, and Bob was asked to coach.
“You think you’ll be the next Bill Self or Roy Williams,” Johnson said.
Instead, Johnson became a leader in the recreation world, becoming a BV Rec commissioner and citizen liaison for the Kansas Recreation and Parks Association before his appointment to the national post last summer. He takes pride in his roots.
“What Blue Valley has had is a strong sense of community and a lot of great people who have strived to make this a fun and family environment,” Johnson said.
What BV doesn’t have is parks.
There’s plenty of green space and activity within the school district’s boundary, like the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Garden and the Deanna Rose Farmstead. They’re operated by the city of Overland Park.
But unlike Johnson County, with its massive Shawnee Mission Park — the state’s most visited — and Olathe’s network of neighborhood and community parks in its parks and recreation program, Blue Valley Rec would be defined by participation activities, which for the summer are detailed in its 48-page catalog.
On this day, like most, the indoor activities started at 6 a.m.
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Or a few minutes before. That’s when Louis Ott was first to swing open the doors at the Activity Center.
“Morning, Louis,” said Julie Fase, front desk greeter, traffic cop, door opener at 5:30 a.m., and officially the Blue Valley Rec’s customer service representative.
Ott, 82, heads to the five-lap pool for his 1,000-foot swim. It’s open pool for the first hour of business and Ott, a former high school and college swimmer, pays $25 for 10 weeks of swimming.
“I didn’t know this was here until a neighbor said his wife was going swimming,” Ott said. “I said, ‘The heck you say.’ It was in the winter. I’ve been coming ever since.”
On the other side of the building in the gymnastics center, seven bleary-eyed women enter instructor Janet Everett’s conditioning class, or boot camp. The first order comes at 6:02 a.m. “March.”
An hour later, seven women file out, breathing hard.
By midmorning, Kristen Larsen, a lifeguard who recently worked poolside at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb., has set up a check-in table for the multitude of kids who have signed up for swimming lessons.
Across the building, a handful of preschoolers wear pirate hats and prepare for a treasure hunt in a recent camp, Ahoy Mateys. The previous week, dinosaurs were the theme. Coming up, the circus, sea life and safaris will be used to tell stories and play games.
A section in the summer catalog is devoted to non-sports offerings, with camps and classes for art, skills and hobbies, language and culture, math, science, performance, technology and exploration.
More pages are devoted to adult programs, and to “Boomers & Beyond.” Sports, yes. But in a sign of the times, classes on resume writing and job interviewing are on the same page as golf and softball.
Next door to the wee pirates, 10 kids ages 4 to 6 have followed lab coat-wearing Janae Beahan and John Garvin, fourth-grade science teachers by trade, into Classroom 3 for Mad Science Camp.
“Where can things grow?” Beahan asks the kids sitting in a semicircle. She shows them a picture of the field.
“Yes,” they say in unison.
Beahan shows them a picture of the sky. “No,” they say.
Next up is a picture of water: “Uh, um, yes, no.”
“Seaweed! Kelp!” come the answers.
For 2½ hours Brayden, Alexander, Liam, Adam, Chase, Abigail, Paige, Zachary, Alexander and Matthew color, experiment and learn about the environment.
Mad Science, a science enrichment provider, is among the multitude of learning and service organizations that contract or coordinate with Blue Valley Rec. Another is the Johnson County Sertoma Club, which built shelters at the ball fields in exchange for use of the fields for the Sertoma Fantasy Sports Camp for deaf and hard-of-hearing kids.
Amy Lekey of Lawrence brought her two adopted sons, Tevin, 9, and Nick, 8, to Overland Park for some fun. They’re hearing-impaired, and baseball was the primary activity on this day; soccer and lacrosse would come later in the week.
“It’s their first time to a camp or anything like this,” Lekey said. “It’s good exposure for them to be around the other kids.”
Precisely, said James “JJ” Jones, a former college pitcher. Jones controls the action from the mound but is getting knocked all over the park. Jones, who is deaf, is the manager of deaf services for The Whole Person, which promotes self-reliance for people with disabilities.
“It’s about fellowship,” Jones said. “Some deaf people go to hearing schools and don’t have many friends. They come here and made friends with deaf and the hard of hearing.”
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If the Activity Center is something of a nerve center, the ball fields are the heart and soul of Blue Valley Rec.
On this night, kids are kicking up dust on all but a couple of diamonds.
The season-ending games for some machine-pitch leagues have wrapped up, and coaching dads offer their final thank yous.
The Mustangs, with six coaches and 10 players, form a circle for a final chant.
Moms from the Bulldogs hand out cookies to the players, then their younger brothers and sisters.
Another group of Bulldogs are handed trophies.
As kids age, they generally move west across the complex, with the high school and most skilled youth leagues playing on the fields across Antioch.
Softball fills four of the newest fields, and new to the complex this year are two sand volleyball pits on what used to be grassy fields near the batting cage. Two games, one between organized girls teams and another a pickup game, are taking place outside the fence of four ball fields.
Every playground — and no cluster of fields exist without one — is packed.
Joe and Carol Sullivan have settled in to watch their grandson Peter Stoltz play machine pitch.
“We’re retired,” Carol said. “This is what we do.”
The Sullivans live in Shawnee but their baseball, softball and soccer playing grandchildren make the drive to the complex a regular commute.
“The growth here has been amazing,” Joe said.
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Mary Ann West, the swimmer who no longer has a back problem, also made friends at BV Rec. They weren’t friends in the beginning, just people who wanted to help.
“Some of the first times in the pool, there was an old lady who had been in a wheelchair — she had to be 80 — and she told me to keep trying,” West said. “An old gentlemen, I didn’t know him, came over and suggested I get some water shoes. It would be safer for me. They made me feel good about being here.
“Ever since I started coming here, my health is better, my blood pressure is better, my outlook on life is better. I cannot encourage people strongly enough to be a part of this.”
To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.