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by Gary Baker and Patrick Dorsey

Have you ever seen an eight year old backhoe operator? How about cutting your name out of steel. These were just two of the many events that took place during the grand opening ceremonies on the new Champaign Downtown Mall. This particular program was co-sponsored by the Downtown Council and the Park Operations Department of the Champaign Park District. Much of the equipment used in daily park maintenance was on display. The theme of the program was "awareness through involvement." This program was organized by the park operations staff and they provided the supervision and technical expertise for the day's activities.

This little girl is being taught how to operate the backhoe tractor.
The theme "awareness through involvement" had a double meaning. First, the program was aimed at dispelling the old motto, "look, but don't touch." These are familiar words the public is used to hearing, especially when they are around heavy equipment. How many times have you heard a young child say, "can I sit in the driver's seat and pretend that I am driving?" This program was the answer to their dreams. Secondly, the program was beneficial to the park operations staff members, because it gave them an opportunity to share their knowledge and experience with the public. By doing so, they became more aware of the process of communicating directly with the public. The program was one of many that was being sponsored as part of the grand opening ceremonies for the newly developed mall in the heart of Downtown Champaign. The city closed off one of the streets through the middle of the Central Business District and turned it into a pedestrian area with seating and display areas.


A wide range of equipment and programs were offered to give the public a well balanced view of park operations. Equipment on display included: seven gang mower, trim mowers, utility trucks, tractors with many different attachments, and a mobile sound truck used in conjunction with a showmobile. Also, many miscellaneous hand tools and specialized equipment were displayed. Everything was labeled to inform the public of the use and need of each piece of equipment. Operations staff personnel were available for additional information and assistance. Programs were designed to be enjoyable, educational and beneficial to all participants. Included were: pruning demonstration, lawn mower blade sharpening, backhoe operation and the use of an acetylene torch.

The highlight of the day was the actual operation of equipment. With assistance from the park staff, individuals were able to operate and move dirt with a tractor/backhoe combination. After a brief description of the operating levers and putting on a hard hat, the diesel engine belched black smoke and the huge bucket/boom started to work. Each participant dug, lifted, moved and dumped dirt as he or she pulled the controlling levers.

As the new operators were digging away, across the mall others were learning to operate an acetylene torch. The safety apparel alone was a sight to behold. The individual was covered by a leather apron, leather gloves, face shield and topped off with a polka-dot hat. The objective was to cut the initial of the participant out of flat steel using an acetylene torch. Again, a brief description of the torch was given and then with staff assistance, the individual operated the torch and cut out their initial. So, the sparks flew, the steel became molten and a work of art was created.

Ten members of the park operations staff were

Illinois Parks and Recreation 4 July/August, 1976

Safety equipment must be worn when operating the acetylene torch. According to participants it's a "hot experience."

involved with developing and supervising the program. Park personnel come in contact with the public on a daily basis, but very seldom do they get an opportunity to interact with them and share ideas. This program has helped the operations staff become more aware of the people who are users of Champaign parks, and the public more aware of the park staff.

A park district has a never ending challenge of achieving support in the community. Each time the public sees a different side of the organization they become more aware of the total district. From awareness comes support and a park district must have the strong support of its community in order to meet its goal of providing for the leisure needs of the community.

This particular program did require a small expenditure of funds, for personnel costs. The Downtown Council provided the promotion including advertisement with media and merchants. The event was so well received that the District has been invited to repeat the program again this year.

Between 400-500 people, young and old, were able to get a firsthand experience in operating equipment during this program.

Every operations department has complex equipment that can be adapted for use in a public program. So with the good weather approaching, set up your equipment and invite the public to become "aware through movement."

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Gary Baker is on the staff of the park operations department of the Champaign Park District, Pat Dorsey is a former staff member of the department.)

Illinois Parks and Recreation 5 July/August, 1976

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