National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Partnerships key to Miami-Dade parks success

By Charles Taylor

Photo courtesy of Miami-Dade County, Fla.

Laura Ortiz, a military veteran who lost her leg in a motorcycle accident, greets a group of kids on the launch day of the Coca-Cola Troops for Fitness program. She and two dozen other vets will lead fitness programs in Miami-Dade County parks.

Laura Ortiz might not be a drill sergeant, but she knows how to put her “recruits” through their paces.

Ortiz is one of two dozen military veterans in Miami-Dade County, Fla. who will be leading adult fitness classes for the county’s parks department under a program called Troops for Fitness.

The partnership is the latest example of several collaborations Miami-Dade parks department is involved in, a trend that’s growing nationwide, according to the National Recreation and Park Associaton (NRPA).

Due to economic conditions, Miami-Dade’s Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces department has shed 450 full-time employees over the past five years, according to Jack Kardys, parks director.

The downsizing has hit neighborhood parks in unincorporated areas of the county especially hard, he added, and that’s where the Troops for Fitness program will focus. Unlike larger parks, these community parks don’t collect parking fees or charge users.

Instructors will work part time, about 30 hours a week, Kardys said, earning about $10 per hour or “a little north” of that. A three-year, $192,000 grant from Coca-Cola and managed by NRPA, announced last month, funds the program.

Ortiz, a former Army reservist, lost her right leg below the knee in a non-service-related motorcycle accident. She’s “thrilled” about the program’s potential to help veterans as well as residents, and sees it as the county’s way of giving back.

“It’s kind of saying thank you for your service and we haven’t forgotten about you, and here’s this great program you can be a part of,” she said. “In your eyes, I might have a disability; I don’t look at it as that. I might do things a little different to adapt to my reality, but … this body’s built to move.”

Troops for Fitness instructors will be able to use state-of-the-art exercise equipment at 14 county parks — the result of another collaboration. The Trust for Public Land helped secure $500,000, matched by the county, to purchase and install the equipment, Kardys said.

Clusters of outdoor gym equipment called TPL Fitness Zones are being installed in designated parks. Funding was provided by MetLife Foundation, Health Foundation of South Florida and The Miami Foundation.

The equipment is similar to what you might find in a private gym, but is more durable to resist weather and vandalism and appropriate for use by kids age 13 and older, and adults of all fitness levels.

In another public-private collaboration, more than three dozen low-income children are receiving scholarships to Miami-Dade Parks’ Fit2Play after-school program. 

It’s a partnership between United Healthcare, CBS EcoMedia and the Parks Foundation of Miami-Dade that supports evidenced-based programing which the University of Miami has shown to prevent obesity and decrease hypertension in children. United Healthcare provided $74,000 toward the program this year.

“Corporations respond to measureable results, and with a program studied and endorsed by the University of Miami, we can literally prove our programs,” Kardys said. “That carries a lot of weight with companies careful about how and where they invest.

A Miami-Dade County employee encourages a park user at Blue Lakes Park on TPL Fitness Zone exercise equipment, purchased through a partnership between the Trust for Public Land and Miami-Dade Parks.

“There are a lot of companies that share the same objectives as we do, and just getting them together and connecting those dots really has helped sustain an awful lot of programs here in Miami-Dade County.”

In all of these partnerships, the Parks Foundation of Miami-Dade County has played a leading role. Last year, it raised $800,000 to enhance parks and park programming, according to its 2012 Annual Report. “More and more, well-respected companies are keenly aware of the economic, social and health benefits of investing in parks and parks programming,” said Dick Anderson, president of the parks foundation and two-time Super Bowl champion with the Miami Dolphins.

NRPA is helping to broker additional roll outs of Troops for Fitness nationwide and works with parks departments across the country to help them leverage outside funding. Jimmy O’Connor is in charge of partnership and business development.

He praised Miami-Dade’s efforts and its leaders for making parks and rec a part of a “larger conversation” about infrastructure and building community.

“Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Space, they are at the table and often sort of leading the conversation. That does make them unique,” he said. “It’s a model that we think is successful, and we would like to see other counties look at.”