Nestled in Williamson County, just 35 miles northeast of Austin, lies Taylor, Texas: a community rich with history and industry. Officially incorporated as a town in 1892, Taylor was founded along a cattle trail and as a stop on the International-Great Northern Railroad. The city was named after Edward Moses Taylor, a railroad official, under the name Taylorsville which officially became Taylor and home to industries including farming, cattle, grain, and cotton.
Today, with a growing population of nearly 17,000 residents, opportunity is ever-present with the arrival of a six million square-foot Samsung factory and changing demographics influenced by urban sprawl. While economic growth is on the horizon, there also exists growing disparities and inequities in health, access to care, and opportunities to thrive.
Over the past few years, St. David’s Foundation has been closely connecting with grant partners, civic leaders, residents, and county and city officials on the local assets, needs, and dreams of this vibrant and historical community. We’ve heard that without activities and thoughtful programming, local parks and green spaces don’t flourish, and communities have limited opportunities to connect with their neighbors. Knowing that 80% of one’s health is shaped by community factors outside the walls of a clinic, we learned that social connection and the availability of inclusive and dynamic programming was a great need for our neighbors in Taylor.
Earlier this year, Tyler Bybee, the Director for Parks and Recreation in Taylor, set out to hire the first Recreational Program Coordinator for the city. Since 2016, there had been a desire from residents to have a dedicated person committed to enhancing recreational activities to help promote healthy living opportunities for all residents – young and old – and encourage youth engagement in the community. “We wanted to shift from small town mentality to a little bit larger, adapt to a growing and changing community and provide a safe space for our residents to have fun, be outside and talk to their neighbors. And we’re doing just that,” said Bybee. Recognizing that local parks are the gateways to healthy and connected communities, and in close partnership with the community, St. David’s Foundation responded to this opportunity and funded the Recreational Program Coordinator position in the Fall of 2022.
This summer, with the leadership of Ian Davis, the city’s first Recreational Program Coordinator, things are working differently in the parks around town and opportunities are aplenty to bring people together through innovative programming. From free water aerobics, Zumba classes, and movie night in the park to reading camps, splash pads, and soccer camps, young children and older folks alike are getting out and experiencing nature. Moreover, the intergenerational programming and access to free and safe outdoor fun is resonating with this community.
“With 70 percent of kids on free and reduced lunch in Taylor ISD, we wanted to focus on these activities being available to all at no cost and to be a welcoming environment for a parent to drop their kid off for a few hours and know that they would enjoy our facilities, interact with others, and play outside,” said Bybee. “We’ve been able to partner with local businesses like Samsung, the school district, A&G Heating and Air, and others to offer free breakfast and lunch, which gives the kids an opportunity to get a meal and also have fun. I really feel we’ve been able to touch all aspects of the community and bring people together at no cost to them.”
With 70 percent of kids on free and reduced lunch in Taylor ISD, we wanted to focus on these activities being available to all at no cost and to be a welcoming environment for a parent to drop their kid off for a few hours and know that they would enjoy our facilities, interact with others, and play outside.
Indeed, people are coming out to the parks and the demand is growing. “Before, we expected around 20 to 30 kids to show up, but now we are getting closer to 200 on some days. It’s proven that if we can activate the space, people will come,” said Bybee. Recently, Dennis Levitin shared how park programming had engaged his son, Mikail, this summer. “The youth programs had Mikail’s full attention. He loved the Lego workshops and would try to fall asleep early the night before so he was rested and ready to get back to the STEM Lego engineering. The Robinson Park pop-ups this year were bigger and better than previous years, and it’s great to see Parks and Rec providing activities for families who can’t afford paid summer camps. Mikail’s confidence and happiness grew this summer, and I hope these programs continue in the future,” said Levitin.
As summer winds down and back to school approaches, Betsy Schultz, Parks and Recreation Superintendent, knows that the impact of these programs and opportunities is creating lasting and meaningful experiences for the residents of Taylor. “When I think about this work, I think about memories. Most people won’t look back on life and remember the pothole on Third Street that was repaired, but rather they’ll likely recall a grandmother walking with her granddaughter through the park. This is where real memories are made and it’s important to remind everybody of that now and again,” said Schultz.
The department is hopeful this renewed energy and enthusiasm will continue to catalyze momentum across Taylor as City Council reviews a broader proposal to continue supporting this work moving into 2024 and beyond. “At the end of the day, when we are able to see a kid having fun, playing giant Jenga or a game of soccer, eating a nourishing meal and showing us a big smile, it puts everything into perspective. It’s why we got into this work and it’s why we love it,” said Bybee.
To learn more about upcoming park events and activities, check out the City of Taylor Park and Recreation page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/taylortxparks
March 02, 2022