HARRISON — Outgoing Recreation Director Paula Holt knows there is no “I” in team and spent as much time thanking everyone who has helped her accomplish so much in her 21 years as she did talking about the programs she implemented.
Holt’s last day of work for the town of Harrison is Friday, Aug. 26. Selectmen and Town Manager George “Bud” Finch are sad to see her go.
“Her summer program at Crystal Lake Park for Harrison’s youth to me is her number one achievement in making it a program that is the envy of many. There are few, if any, families in Harrison who did not watch their children grow through this program,” Finch wrote in his weekly update, noting this equated to generations of kids. “So on behalf of all of the children, many who are now young adults, and for the town as a whole, thank you for all you have done.”
Holt sat down with the Advertiser Democrat last week – sporting her signature tie-dyed T-shirt she made during the summer recreation program – to talk about her two-plus decades at the helm of the town’s Recreation Department. She’s learned a lot over the years.
“I’ve learned patience, listening skills. I’ve learned team work … how important it is,” Holt said. “It has been a life-changing journey for me and I’ve grown to a much stronger person as a result.”
She began working for the Recreation Department part time in 1985 when Holt was under the supervision of the Recreation Commission, not the town manager as she is today. She worked out of her home and eventually moved into the old Town Office.
When Holt came on board, the Recreation Department offered a swim program, some sports and a half-day of recreation.
“When I took over I just started creating and imagining what it would be like to have a real big comprehensive program for all ages that would benefit from a variety of activities,” she said. “Just because we live in a small rural community doesn’t mean kids and teens … and adults can’t have something offered for them.”
Since it was a part-time gig, Holt taught fitness at Bodies in Motion, which is now The Ballroom, and was the weight training coach at Lake Region High School.
“That inspired me to return to college. Off I went to St. Joe’s Community College in Standish,” she said, adding she majored in physical education and it took her six years to earn her degree.
She wanted to become a physical education teacher and when that didn’t pan out, she approached the selectmen and town manager about making her position full-time. In 2002 she became the town’s first full-time recreation director.
“I think they liked what they saw. They liked the programs I was offering, particularly the summer program, which grew. … I was so inspired by what I learned at St. Joe’s College. I wanted to bring so many recreational opportunities to people,” Holt said. “I just wanted to rise above and not be like every other rec department. I wanted it to be special and generate memories for the people who come.”
For youth sports, Holt kept baseball, teeball and swimming going and added on a little each year, including floor hockey, basketball, soccer and volleyball. There is also an “Over 40” pickleball and coed softball for adults.
Holt is a certified National Youth Sports Coaches Association technician and has recruited and trained more than 100 coaches, who sign a code of ethics pledge.
“I felt strongly if coaches weren’t given the tools and the resources it would not be easy to teach and coach children,” she said. “Every child has the right to learn and play a sport regardless of talent. … They leave feeling good about themselves and don’t feel pressured by the coaches.”
There are no electronics allowed at the Summer Recreation program and kids in grades one through seven spend six hours a day enjoying the great outdoors. They go canoeing, kayaking and swimming, visit the library every week, do art projects and hear from a nutritionist and other guest speakers.
Also a favorite part of the summer program – for Holt, the summer staff and the kids – is the giant campouts at Crystal Lake Beach. Children learn how to set up a tent, start a campfire and cook food, along with contests such as who can find the biggest night crawler and the best funky pajamas.
“There were some great memories made on those big campouts,” Holt said. “It is just unbelievable the stuff that has gone on. … It is just a win-win down there.”
She’s heard that some consider the Summer Recreation program more of a day care.
“I guess if you’re going to say that’s a day care, then school’s a day care but it’s not,” Holt said. “I call it ‘educational recess.’ It’s like going to recess all day every day, 9 [a.m.] to 3 [p.m.], but it’s learning opportunities.”
She noted the new Hooked on Fishing program, which was funded through a donation in memory of lifelong Harrison resident Mike Martin. Longtime volunteer Barry Richardson taught the children how to cast in an open field with big, plastic fish, then took them down to the open water on Long Lake. There they not only learned how to fish, but also learned about different types of fish and lake ecology.
“That is why I call it an educational recess because the kids come down and learn skills they can use their whole lifetime. It’s not about coming down and just hanging out,” Holt said. “The kids caught just under 100 fish this summer. It was amazing – they loved it.”
Holt targeted the senior citizen population and created a number of recreational activities for them, including March Madness, bingo, turkey dinner, bus trips to places around New England, and the weekly Senior Lunch program.
The Senior Lunch program “just a place for our senior adults could go and meet up with friends and meet new friends,” she said. “It’s always fun and friends and fitness in one way or another.”
Holt said she could not have made the Recreation Department as successful as it is without the help of hundreds of volunteers who gave their time, along with her paid summer counselors. She thanked Richardson, who has helped Holt out since she first began and in addition to Gone Fishing, has assisted with other programming and built canoe racks, hockey goals and other equipment.
“Every rec department should have a Barry,” she said.
She also gave kudos to her assistant of 13 years, Chris Anderson, who ran the arts program.
“She was also a huge part of my recreational life,” Holt said. “I couldn’t have done it without her.”
Holt gave a nod to Sharon Wilson, who helped her with March Madness and the senior bus trips, SAD 17 bus driver Ted Jones, who took Harrison recreation folks on trips all over the state and New England, and Julie Dennison, who helps with the 5K Race by the Lake, which generates money for the Recreation Department. And without the support of her husband, Doug, Holt said she would have left a long time ago.
Last but not least, Holt thanked residents and taxpayers, especially for their support of the Summer Recreation program.
“It is a one-person department. … People need to know that and people need to come forward to help that one person to keep recreation alive and healthy in this community,” she said. “In the summer you are blessed to have a paid staff.”
Holt plans on working and wants to do something with physical education and/or kids, adding she’s not physically tired. She’s taking the month of September to travel around the state in her camper with Doug to decompress.
“I feel better now at 60 then when I started [with the Recreation Department] at 39 years old. My mind is tired of planning the next event,” she said. The camper trip will “let my mind relax … [figure] out what I want to do now and what would be good for me as I move forward with on my life journey. I might have some talents I might not know yet.”