Growing up in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Terrence Thompson found more than fun at his local community centers. He also found a safe place and his life’s calling. He went on to study recreation management at Appalachian State University and has spent about 15 years working in recreation — the last 10 in Madison. Two years into his role as facility manager for the Warner Park Community Recreation Center, he spoke with the Cap Times about his vision for the north side center and the transformations already underway.

Recreation is clearly your career. What made you excited about that?

Some of the most influential people in my life growing up were the people that worked at the local parks and recreation department. Me and my friends would always go to the local community center and play basketball, air hockey and stuff like that. The staff were always just so nice and welcoming and really made it fun for us. It was something that I took note that I wanted to do: I wanted to make my impact in the world by providing those types of experiences to folks. 

What brought you to Madison in 2009?

When the economy went down, I was working with the YMCA of Greater Charlotte, and my position was eliminated. I had a couple job offers, and the most attractive offer was one here in Madison: the YMCA of Dane County on Whitney Way. I took like two weeks to really think about it because it was going to be a life-changing move. I took the job, got in a Uhaul, said bye to my family. Fourteen hours later, I was up here.

And you've stayed.

Yes. Madison has been a place where I've really been able to grow. Parks are a part of Madison's identity. We have I think upwards of close to 280 parks in the city, and we have more parks per capita than any city in the nation. I ended up leaving (the YMCA) and going over to Madison Schools and Community Recreation, where I ran a bunch of adult athletics programs. I was there for four years and then this position came open. 

What role would you most like to see Warner Park Recreation Center playing on the north side?

Just a place for the entire community to benefit from. All ages — you might say "cradle to the grave." A big part of my vision for the center has been to connect with groups that haven't historically had a spot here at the rec center. I was one of those kids where I really looked at rec centers as a place where I could go — not always from a programmatic standpoint, but just somewhere to go and be safe and just enjoy being a teenager, have a good time and celebrate being young. 

Can you give me an example of a type of person or group you're trying to connect more with?

We've particularly been interested in reaching out to groups who we consider underserved. All the schools on the north side have after-school programs, and we have four neighborhood centers right here on the north side that have community centers right there in their neighborhoods. So we're looking at kids who aren't involved in those.

How do you find them?

A lot working with the schools and a lot of one-on-one connections here at the center, just talking with kids, understanding where their friends are hanging out. We’ve done some grassroots, on-foot connecting with kids out in the shopping centers, in their communities, Troy Drive, etc.

How do you think about what it means to be a facility manager?

It's all about how you envision running the facility. A big part of what my position is set up to do is connecting and collaborating out in the community. There's also personnel and budget and all those administrative things, but the position, for me, is somebody that's really helping make the north side of town a better place for all residents.

You’re two years into your role here. What’s changed since you started?

A lot. The most notable is the expansion of opportunities for youth to use the center, making sure the center has opportunities on a daily basis for youth to access the center for free. In the first couple of months in my position, I had 25 meetings with individuals in the neighborhood: grassroots leaders, nonprofit organizations, neighborhood center leaders, school principals, residents. The sessions indicated that there was a lack of safe space for the youth. 

Can you tell me about specific changes that have made it more accessible?

On Mondays and Wednesdays (in the past), the youth could come in and access the open gym. It was very popular. Twenty-five, 30 kids would come in. But on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, it cost $1 (and) the center was empty. The fee was a barrier preventing kids from coming in. My job is to visualize how can we break down those barriers. I developed a plan that involved removing that $1 fee, and we ended up getting that fee systematically removed from policy. That opened up the center everyday for the youth. It spread like wildfire. We historically served roughly 350 (visits) per month. Over the last nine months, we've had close to 800 and in March we had over 1,000. And we've added things like Teen Night and the 3-on-3 basketball tournament to supplement the Open Gyms with programming for youth.

What challenges are you still working on or might you be taking on in the next two years?

We did a lot of intentional outreach in having (youth) understand the rules and the policies and how do you operate in a space like this. We'd talk about the rules for the day, and they also got to co-create the rules. We've seen a huge shift in culture. Now we're going to have a new group that will be able to use the space (as they turn 11), and so continuing those conversations is a challenge that we've recognized. 

What are your favorite moments at the rec center?

Seeing the kids being able to be here on a daily basis. I wouldn't trade that for anything. That's the power of what we're doing — that sense of belonging and kids feel like ‘This is our place too. This is where we want to be and this is where we're gonna go everyday after school.’

For kids who, like you, realize they want to be part of this work, are there ways here or elsewhere for them to get hired?

Absolutely. There's always opportunities through MSCR. They have a really large recreation department and hire a lot of young folks. Obviously through the city Parks Division, we're always looking for individuals to develop and bring up through the chain. And if individuals want to learn from an educational standpoint, MATC has a two-year Recreation Management program, and UW-LaCrosse has a Recreation Management bachelor's.

What do you picture for yourself for the future?

Just continuing to build on what we've started here and making sure it sustains over time. We've got all these great things going. I just want to make sure they're here in 10, 15 years. 

And you all are in a fundraising campaign?

Yes. We just wanted the youth to have a space space to go, and it's grown into this KNOW campaign — Kids Need Opportunities at Warner. It's just amazing what the community has stepped up to do so far. It kind of gives me chills.

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