Children and families are the cornerstone of any growing community, and no organization has worked harder at improving Great Bend’s quality of life than the Great Bend Recreation Commission. It is for that reason that the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce & Economic Development awarded The Great Bend Rec with the 2018 Legacy Award during their Annual Meeting & Banquet on Saturday, Feb. 23.
When the State of Kansas legislature formed recreation commissions all over the state over 70 years ago, Great Bend’s residents appreciated the sentiment that rural Kansans deserved a quality recreation system. On April 6, 1948 the Great Bend Recreation Commission was officially organized and hired their first director a year later. Carl Soden, a military veteran, came to Great Bend after teaching and coaching in Caney. According to Soden, “during these formative years, there were no recreation facilities in Great Bend. There were four grade schools - only one with a gym and one softball and baseball field.”
The very limited staff in the beginning got by with very little, using vacant lots with snow fence around them as ball fields. Swimming lessons were operated from a lighted pool with three diving boards. The first annual report from 1949 listed 749 participants engaged in various activities such as basketball, bowling, swimming lessons, art classes, softball and baseball, and adult volleyball - all programs still being offered to this day. But there were also a few that today’s residents may not be as familiar with, such as a marbles tournament, a snow sled derby, and community wide parties held at the KVGB radio station for Easter, Halloween, and Christmas.
In 2018, the Great Bend Recreation Commission enrolled more than 6,969 residents enrolled in recreation programs plus another 645 non-residents for a total of 7,614 people participating throughout the year. When you count all the individual programs they participated in such as fitness, sports, after school programming, art, cooking, adaptive learning, adult programs, etc the total number for individual enrollments climbs over 159,000. The Rec also employs nine full time staff members as well as 180 seasonal and part time positions.
Throughout the last 70+ years serving the Great Bend community, there were several important milestones that built toward the legacy being celebrated today. In 1969, the Recreation Center was built and shortly afterward a master plan for Veterans Memorial Park was developed in the mid 1970s.
“The visioning that was taking place back then has set a legacy in motion that future directors have continued to build upon, each bringing their own strengths to the table,” says Diann Henderson, the Rec’s Executive Director for over 30 years. “Carl Soden and Paul Keller, my predecessors, each earned a spot in the Kansas Recreation & Parks Association (KRPA) Hall of Fame, and Great Bend has a really good reputation for excellence in our industry.”
Henderson herself has earned several impressive accolades, including the KRPA Distinguished Professional Award, received the Blue Cross Blue Shield Chip Award, KRPA Special Service Award, KRPA Award for Excellence in Recreation Programming, and is a member of NRPA.
Under Henderson’s leadership, she and the rest of her team have continued pursuing healthier living and activities for everyone, with several noteworthy accomplishments in recent years that were all future-focused. One example is the partnership between the McKinna Ann Hope Foundation in bringing the first totally inclusive destination playground known as “My BackYard Playground” located at the Great Bend Activity Center.
“The Rec garners these partnerships for the pursuit of active lifestyles with non-profit organizations, private businesses, the City of Great Bend and USD #428 school district in assuring recreation opportunities and modern recreation facilities are available for public recreation interests,” Henderson says.
Other recreation facility and program highlights over the past several years include:
• Great Bend Sports Complex
• Redesign of the Great Bend Disc Golf Course
• Great Bend Fit Trail
• The Music Park at Veterans Lake
• Wetlands Aquatic Park
• Great Bend Activity Center
• Additional T-Ball Field at Westfall Park
• Two Practice Fields at Lincoln School
• Remodeling the Recreation Center
• Cavanaugh Wellness Center
• Great Bend Mural Project
• Imagination Playground
• Summer Youth Theatre Program
• Special Events such as the Kite Festival and Oozefest Volleyball Tournament
And that doesn’t begin to list the countless youth, high school, and collegiate baseball and softball tournaments our community has hosted because of the Recreation Commission’s leadership in recruiting and hosting teams from all over the Midwest. Nor does it list the long and growing list of after school programs, summer camps, swimming lessons, senior programs, and many other activities being facilitated by the Rec every year.
In 2018, the Rec also launched a new, mobile friendly website offering online registration and a newly designed logo that emulates the “R” for the Rec as well as the bend in the Arkansas River that is so iconic to Great Bend’s geography.
The Great Bend Recreation Commission’s legacy has evolved over 70 years, bringing Great Bend together in pursuit of healthier living and activities for everyone. Today, the Recreation Commission vision statement notes: “We will champion community and personal growth through lifelong recreation experiences.” This statement is reflected in the quality of life experiences and benefits the Recreation Commission promotes as an active community through its programs for all ages and abilities, tournaments, community events, and creating and recreating play spaces within public facilities and parks.
“These recreation services are not only a quality of life issue, they are also significant economic generators with local spending, visitor spending, in promoting healthy and active lifestyles which attracts new businesses which creates a vibrant community,” Henderson says. “As to the next 70 years of legacy… the Recreation Commission will continue to energize Great Bend!”
Previous Legacy Award Recipients
2018 Kids Ag Day
2016 Kari Smith
2015 Skip Yowell