By Ruthie Laroche
For the County Courier
How often do fireworks, sugar on snow, duct tape sleds, and horse-drawn wagon rides all converge in one area? This weekend the St. Albans Recreation Department is bringing all of these things and more for local folks to enjoy.
This Saturday and Sunday the Recreation Department welcomes the community to join them celebrating the 10th Annual Winter Carnival at Hard‘ack.
The festivities will commence on Saturday night in Taylor Park where a beautiful fireworks display will light up the downtown.
Sunday the fun begins at 11:00 am with a nature walk led by local nature favorite Bridget Butler. For those who don’t feel like a winter walk or who didn’t pre-register for the free walk, there will be plenty of fun activities to keep everyone moving and laughing in the snow.
“Hard’ack is the center for our winter recreation,” said Andrew Gratton, Program Manager at the Rec. Department, “All of the events at the Winter Carnival are sponsored so that we can provide this for free to the community. We have events for people of all ages.”
Events range from a snowball toss, obstacle course, birdfeed art in the snow, sleigh rides with Gary Cherrier and his draft horses Mike and Ivan, flag football Snow Bowl, and sugar on snow.
The main event of the carnival starts at 2:00pm—The Duct Tape Derby. It’s an event that requires creativity, daring, and a whole lot of duct tape!
“The kids make all these cool sleighs out of cardboard and duct tape and race down the hill for the fastest time,” said Gratton.
Kelly Viens, the Recreation Director, began working with the Rec. Department when she was 14 years old teaching swimming lessons when Dan Marlow was the director of the department.
Viens spent her summers working for the department during her high school and college years, and then she came back and taught adult fitness programming and swimming lessons on the side.
Viens has been serving as the Recreation Director for the last eight years, after serving six years as the pool manager.
Viens came by the love of kids and recreation pretty naturally, following in the footsteps of her father William Anderson, a long time volunteer within the community.
“I believe my father was the first recreation director. He started volunteering in the early seventies,” said Viens.
Over time the recreation department grew large enough to support a paid director, and Viens remembers Dan Marlow as the first person to fill that position.
Five years ago the department moved into the Barlow Street Community Center where they have an excellent location to serve both town and city folks and the area at large.
Viens shared that she was a student at the Barlow Street School, attending third grade in the room that now serves as her office.
“It’s such a beautiful, old building, and to have people in it every day is wonderful,” said Viens.
The new location has plenty of room to host classes and events. It also has basketball courts, a playground, and relatively easy access to the city pool.
Gratton, a graduate of UVM with a degree in Parks, Tourism, and Rec Managment, joined the staff, eager to see how he could use his skills to help create an inviting, interesting, and affordable place for kids, families, and community members to socialize, exercise and learn.
“It was just what I wanted to do–right here in my hometown. I’ve been here for a year, and it’s been great. The whole reason I wanted to come into Rec. was to help build the community and improve it in any way that I could.”
Gratton and Viens have formed a strong partnership, the fresh graduate, and the seasoned director. Viens brings years of experience and Gratton brings the energy of youth.
“I love hanging out with kids. They are so funny to me, and the way their brains work is so fresh and different,” said Gratton.
Gratton is hands-on with the programs at the Rec., and that gives him lots of time to make balloon animals, play basketball, and enjoy the youthful minds around him.
“I do all the fun stuff,” said Gratton, “sometimes the kids call me the ‘fun uncle.’ We try to do fun stuff when they’re here. If it’s the afterschool program, the kids don’t want to be in a school environment. They want to have fun. We are always trying to help them have fun and relax.”
The kids who enjoy the rec programs come from all types of circumstances, and Gratton appreciates that fact, “Sometimes the kids come and they aren’t having the best day or the best time at home. When they are here, we get to help them have fun.”
As much as the rec department is about fun and learning, there is a deeper purpose that Gratton, Viens, and the staff serve every day.
“We see more and more kids struggling,” said Viens, “Some of them have a heartbreaking life. But they can come here and relax. It sounds trivial to say that they have fun, but that is our business. It’s to make a fun afternoon, event, or day.”
“You never know what will happen when you have the opportunity to change one person’s life. They could go on and change so many other people’s lives,” said Gratton.
One of Gratton’s desires was to see the Rec. Department provides services to folks of all ages. Gratton pointed out that classes like the Digital Cafe, which he teaches, helps adults learn everything from how to use email and Facebook to operating laptops, mobile phones, and tablets. Gratton has a minor in Computer Science from UVM, so he has the skills to teach tech.
Nerf Games have been taking place at City Hall on Tuesday nights for those who are more inclined to get their energy out indoors.
“I always used to shoot my parents with my Nerf Blaster,” said Gratton with a chuckle, “you shoot your parents and your siblings. It’s what you do! We figured parents might be ready for the kids to play each other.”
Basketball is a staple at the rec center, and that’s been underway for a few weeks this winter, serving K-4th grade.
Open gyms take place on Saturdays. There is a fee to participate, but as Gratton pointed out, it’s a cheap way to get two hours of indoor exercise.
“It’s a fun way to get your kids out to burn some energy out before nap time,” said Gratton, “We wanted to give people a place to go play in the winter.”
For those who aren’t into sports, Jennifer Martin hosts a theater class and the Rec. Department is also looking to expand their art offerings, giving kids a chance to explore different artistic media.
One of the most beloved events hosted by the St. Albans Recreation Department took place last Thursday. The 10th Annual Father Daughter Gala, an evening of sparkle and wonder that draws fathers and daughters of all ages.
Paula Johnson and her father Paul Bouchard, who is in his late eighties, look forward to attending the Father Daughter Gala every year.
“My dad and I have been to every gala with the exception of one. It is something we look forward to every year!” said Johnson, “My dad enjoys every aspect…silent auction, photo booth, dancing, and food and loves to visit with friends his age as well as the little ones. Kelly Viens and crew have done a great job with this as well as other Rec events!”
Gratton and Viens both expressed the joy they see from the girls as they come to the gala dressed in their beautiful dresses, dads in tow.
“The little girls are bringing their dads,” said Viens, “My dad comes with my sisters and me, and he’s 85.”
Events like the gala help to raise money for the rec program, but even more than that they bring families together and encourage folks to get out and enjoy the company of others.
Whether you’re a young parent looking for a weekend outing with the kids, an adult looking to augment your computer knowledge, or a student looking for a summer job where your time will have an impact, the St. Albans Recreation Department has something for everyone.
“We get calls from people all the time who want to know what we have to offer, especially young families,” said Viens, “we hear from people who live in town, from people in the surrounding area, and from people who are considering relocating here. They want to be part of our programs.”
Gratton and Viens welcomed folks to visit the St. Albans Recreation Department website where they can view upcoming events and classes and register for the offerings they’d like to explore.