One on One with…Paula Holt
By Wayne E. Rivet
Paula Holt has always believed to enhance the quality of life in her community, she had to be a force in strengthening the mind, body and spirit of townspeople.
As an old proverb goes, “The body heals with play, the mind heals with laughter, and the spirit heals with joy.”
For the past 21 years, Paula Holt has led the recreational charge in Harrison. She has played games with the young and old. She has made people laugh, like wearing a homemade Easter Bunny suit created by volunteer Vickie Conlon Roberts for the first Giant Egg Hunt held in 1996 (“Sometimes, we hunted for eggs in deep snow and other years in the leaves. You must love Easter in Maine,” she said). And, she has touched the lives of many through her never-ending energy, compassion and dedication.
She built Harrison’s recreation program from the ground up. On Friday, Sept. 2, Paula Holt bid farewell to a job that “always felt right to me.”
“I don’t like to say good-byes as they are too final, so I say to all I have met along my journey that I will see you again on the next path I travel,” she wrote in her final town weekly report.
The News recently went one-on-one with the longtime rec director, giving her a chance to reflect on an impressive two decades of work in the “Friendly Village,” as well as an opportunity to share memories she will cherish.
BN: Did you ever imagine that you would be in this position for 21 years, and how did you come to the decision that 2016 would be your final year?
PAULA: Actually, I never thought that far ahead. I just focused on the job, followed my heart and immersed myself in all aspects of recreation. I was overcome by the exciting challenge of bringing a variety of recreational opportunities to people of all ages living in a small rural community. As recreation was growing and evolving so was my personal life. I made many adjustments along the way, feeling a bit stretched thin sometimes. As I got older, I was beginning to feel that family time was becoming even more important and with the erratic hours required, weekend commitments, personal sacrifices, my mind began to desire a slower pace. I always promised myself when I did come to the end of my journey, I would “finish strong.” Harrison Rec is now a turnkey operation and ready to continue moving forward.
BN: What lured you to being a rec director?
PAULA: Being a Recreation Director was not on my radar at all. Just prior to this life changing opportunity, I was co-owner and a fitness instructor with Nan Brett at Bodies in Motion, which is now The Ballroom. Teaching and educating my students about health and wellness was amazing and very rewarding. I thoroughly enjoyed watching people make changes in their life and become healthier. As a result, I became addicted to this profession. I then taught fitness classes in the Lake Region and Oxford Hills area. I became the Lifetime fitness instructor at Lake Region High School and then was hired as the first weight training coach for students, athletes and faculty. This incredible experience, along with watching Lynne Harrison’s P.E. classes, inspired me to return to college after 21 years and major in Physical Education with a minor in Sports Management. I then enrolled part-time at Saint Joseph’s College and finished strong as a full-time student, graduating in 2001. Just prior to enrolling, I was hired by the Town of Harrison as an interim then part-time rec director under the recreation commission. I was preparing for something big, but wasn’t sure what until it all began to unfold when I was hired as the Town of Harrison’s first full-time, year-round recreation director.
BN: If you weren’t a rec director, what might you have chosen as a career?
PAULA: I believe while part-time director, the townspeople liked what they were seeing, so support was growing and that’s what led to a full-time position, especially after I earned my bachelor’s degree. If this did not happen, I most likely would have entered the school system as a Physical Education teacher with a continuing focus on health and wellness and emphasis on nutrition. I would have enjoyed educating our young people about how to incorporate movement and healthy food choices into their daily lives and how great they would feel as a result. However, I accomplished this through recreation particularly during the eight-week summer day camp.
BN: What accomplishments were the most rewarding for you as you look back?
PAULA: First and foremost, I would not have accomplished all that I did if it were not for the confidence and faith that the Harrison taxpayers continually revealed. Their support at town meetings and beyond clearly was the reason I was voted in as full-time. From then on, I promised myself I would never let them down or have them question their decision. This highly motivated me to rise above and continue to create unique and quality programs for all ages. My hard work as a part-timer for six years definitely paid off and that was a great accomplishment for me.
As the taxpaying residents’ support continued I was able to build and strengthen the Fun, Friends and Fitness Summer Rec Day Camp. I thought the title of this camp was perfect. It continued to evolve with the expansion of many programs and educational opportunities. This is where the concept of “Educational Recess” comes into “play.” A place where children grades 1-9 could spend their summer vacation learning life skills from trained, knowledgeable, creative and caring staff in a safe, fun and positive environment. At the same time, I started a Teen Adventure program that attracted young adolescents grades 7-9, who also learned life skills doing outdoor adventures like white water rafting, canoeing, kayaking, camping, hiking and climbing. The teen program operated 10 years and the day camp continued on for only grades 1-7.
BN: Every job has its challenges. What were the most difficult challenges you faced?
PAULA: There was definitely minor challenges along the way, however one of greatest is balancing it all mentally and physically since many times you are planning two to three months in advance so the fear of “time running out” doesn’t overcome you. Time management is critical for success; you and the calendar become best friends. A one-person department with a limited budget requires you to be creative and constantly find and use your resources to avoid too many expenses. The other challenge is a one-person operation depends solely on volunteers other than the summer day camp. Volunteers are extremely valuable to make programs run smooth and with great success. Recruiting volunteers is a challenge, but once you have a loyal following it’s fabulous. You just don’t want to burn them out so you are always asking others to “step up to the plate.”
BN: What was your philosophy as you built the Harrison Rec program?
PAULA: I have always believed “recreation” is just what it implies — indoor and outdoor activities that are fun, rewarding and empowering. A time without pressure or stress for an individual of any age to move the body, learn or improve skills, gain confidence, be with friends or meet new ones and, most importantly, a time to have FUN.
With this belief and knowing the truth after years of working with individuals and in groups, this was the foundation from which I built my programs. My mission statement from the beginning was to “enhance the quality of life in our community by strengthening, mind, body and spirit of those who participate in the recreation activities offered.” One of my most favorite quotes is from Proverb, “The body heals with play, the mind heals with laughter and the spirit heals with joy” and that’s what recreation is all about.
BN: A statistic released today puts Maine as the most obese state in New England. What has been your message to children regarding the importance of recreation and healthy lifestyles? And, what can we as a society do better to improve our overall health?
PAULA: I believe being a positive role model practicing and living a healthy lifestyle, I have been sending my message to everyone I come in contact with. To avoid preaching to children, I promote a healthy lifestyle by educating them through the type of programs and food offered.
The perfect place for sending this message to our youth is the summer day camp, where we offer many small programs and activities within the day camp hours. We offer healthy food choices at lunch prepared in the food booth, Thursdays has always been healthy snack day. Every year, I have had Karen Toohey from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension visit to offer nutrition workshops about “My Plate” and “Think Your Drink” helping kids prepare healthy meals and snacks. Removing soda along with other unhealthy food and drink choices from the food booth and explaining why was huge step in the right direction. Together, we can make a difference.
As a society, we need to keep educating ourselves on the benefits of adding more movement and healthier food choices into our daily lives. We need to view food as medicine to keep our body strong for it’s our temple and the only place we have to live. It’s also about balance; 80–20 rule works: 80% of the time eat foods in their natural state and close to nature as possible and the other 20% have your favorite treats. As Jack Lalanne “fitness guru” once said, “Exercise is Queen but Nutrition is King.”
BN: The success of any public program is contingent on support — in this case, the town manager, taxpayers, staff, volunteers and parents. How important was it for all of these groups to come together to help you drive this program and develop it into what it is today?
PAULA: TEAM=Together Everyone Achieves More. I am a firm believer in teamwork and how critical it is to the success of public programs. Each person or group of people you mention plays an extremely important role on the team for programs to operate at top-notch. You must have all members in place and ready to perform. You cannot afford to have anyone missing. Whether it’s financial support, administrative support, volunteers for sports, special programs and unique events, paid staff (either town employees or the summer staff members) who motivate, inspire and work with the children during the summer day camp, or parents who register and transport their child(ren) to and from games, it is all these valuable individuals and groups of people that drive the programs. It’s easy to design and create programs, however you must have a large support group to make them happen. When we all work together, everyone wins!
BN: We all have some regrets in our working lives. As you look back, is there anything you might have changed or done a little differently?
PAULA: Absolutely no regrets. I would not change a thing. Everything “played” out in a timely manner and it all came together as the years crept on. For the most part, programs remained consistent over time. People looked forward to certain programs, especially children. You never get bored because you are creating and changing things up all the time. I do wish I started at a younger age, however.
BN: What advice would you offer your predecessor, Kayla Laird, regarding the rec director’s position?
PAULA: I encourage Kayla to network with others in the park and recreation industry to stay on the cutting edge. Make connections with the residents and local communities. Get people on your team. Work hard, stay true to yourself, be actively involved and stay consistent with policies and procedures.
BN: What will you miss the most about the job?
PAULA: I will miss the personal connection with the children, parents, my volunteers, summer staff and the seniors. I will miss the enjoyment of watching the children learn skills and the smiles that follow when they master skills. I will miss the kids having fun. I will miss interacting with the children and parents. I will miss the seniors I have come to know during the socials and luncheons and their words of wisdom. I have made new friendships with some of my volunteers, who stuck with me for many years. I will deeply miss my summer staff. We shared so much during the eight-week program and developed strong bonds that will last a lifetime. I left with two decades of memories that I will cherish forever.
BN: What will you likely miss the least?
PAULA: At this stage of my life, I won’t miss the erratic hours required for this type of work. Trying to go on a vacation has always been such a challenge as no one is in the office for a backup. I won’t miss the prep work involved preparing to go on a vacation nor will I miss the many e-mails and phone messages that await me when I return. I don’t like to be wired while re-energizing my body and recreating in the natural world.
BN: What does the future hold for you?
PAULA: I am not sure this early on. I need to slow the pace down a bit, clear my head and adjust to a new normal, but honestly it won’t be easy. I know my passion is health and wellness so I am hoping something of this nature will present itself. I am looking forward to another exciting journey.
BN: Finally, any parting comment or message?
PAULA: It has been a true honor and privilege to have served in a most rewarding position in the town in which I reside, and I would like to thank the hundreds and hundreds of people from the bottom of my heart who helped me make the “Friendly Village” of Harrison a FUN place to work, live and play.