STACEY LEEP AND LAUREN CARTE
EDITOR’S NOTE : This story was originally published in the August/September issue of River Cities Magazine. To subscribe, call 304-526-4468.
You never know what you might see Stacey Leep and Lauren Carte dressed as. It might be a cheeseburger and a pickle. One or both of them also might be found masquerading as a polar bear, a tree, a Christmas elf, a dinosaur or a taco.
“We wear a lot of costumes, and not just at Halloween,” said Leep, who heads recreation for the Greater Huntington Park & Recreation District. “To be honest, I think we look for excuses to put on costumes. You truly never know what kind of characters will be driving around in the GHPRD recreation van.”
When in their traditional recreation-wear, this dynamic duo might be doing anything from leading hikes to grilling hot dogs, calling bingo, selling outdoor theater tickets or guiding children through games and crafts — all in the name of fun. Whether it’s 95 degrees or 35 degrees, you’re likely to find them in a park doing what they love.
Leep, the recreation superintendent for the Park District, and Carte, the district’s development and recreation manager, spend their days facilitating, planning, organizing and leading mostly outdoor, but some indoor recreational activities in the community. Whether the Cozy Campfire Christmas event at Gobbler’s Knob or the Fantasy Maze in Ritter Park, the Father-Daughter Valentine Dance at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena or monthly hikes on Cabell County’s hiking trails, these women play key roles in providing the kind of activities that make Huntington, West Virginia, a special place to live and raise a family.
“We hope to encourage community members to come out to their local parks and engage in programs and activities in a fun, safe environment,” said Leep, who joined the Park District over four years ago. “More specifically, most of our programs for kids aim to foster an appreciation of parks and outdoor recreation that will hopefully last a lifetime.
“I believe outdoor recreation, whether it’s organized programming or free play, improves the happiness, health and well-being of individuals, families and the community as a whole,” Leep continued. “To me, there is nothing better than seeing folks outside, in a park, playing, exercising or relaxing in nature.”
She and Carte work tirelessly to provide fun events for community members to spend time together and make memories, and whether outdoors or indoors, their events can draw quite a crowd, said Kevin Brady, executive director of the Park District.
“The Father-Daughter Valentine Dance — it’s huge,” Brady said. “We’ve moved it twice now because we keep outgrowing the facility. And the Mom and Son Prom has caught on. We had a great crowd there this year.
“The Easter Extravaganza, we’ve upped it to 25,000 eggs,” Brady said. “We have it now to where it will last a minute and 37 seconds. We never made it to a minute until this year.”
The list of their activities is lengthy, but some of which Carte are most proud include the St. Cloud Commons All-Inclusive Playground, now under construction, the annual Christmas in July celebration and the Paws in the Park Easter Egg Hunt, both at Ritter Park.
“I am a self-proclaimed ‘Christmas enthusiast,’” Carte said. “Christmas in July allows folks to get in the Christmas spirit a little early. This free event includes a Christmas ornament craft followed by a holiday classic movie under the stars. I love this event because it allows the community to embrace the spirit of Christmas without the stress of shopping, cooking, decorating, etc.
“The Paws in the Park Easter Egg Hunt is a doggy Easter egg hunt featuring over 2,000 treat-filled eggs. The pups bring their human companions to Ritter Park to assist them in gathering the eggs. Some lucky dogs even
take home special prizes. The dogs that wear their ‘Easter best’ compete in a costume contest following the egg hunt. Huntington is such a dog-loving city, so this event has been very well received. There is truly nothing like seeing and hearing hundreds of dogs ‘hunting’ Easter eggs.”
The two leading programs Leep has organized, with regards to time spent planning, cost and people served, are the Huntington Area Regional Theatre (HART), which hosts outdoor summertime productions at the Ritter Park amphitheater, and the Fantasy Maze, a Halloween event in which children make their way through a maze of 1,200 hay bales to meet storybook characters and collect candy.
“I work closely with the ’. Choose Joy Players year-round 1 on both programs,” she said.”... i From the time they audition in 1 January until the final curtain in July, these folks devote countless volunteer hours crafting productions for thousands of community members to enjoy. In October, the Choose Joy Players return to Ritter Park to bring the Fantasy : Maze to life.
″... Of course, these events are a huge team effort and require contributions from almost every GHPRD employee in one way or another. To be part of an event or program that is such a collaboration and serves so many members of the community is just a very rewarding experience.”
However, Leep said, “Smaller-scale events like hikes and crafts, which require much less planning and may only see a handful of participants, can also be really meaningful because we can interact with and get to know those folks on a more personal level.”
Leep and Carte have found themselves in the middle of some fascinating projects.
“We’ve done everything from playing with an inflatable leprechaun, to operating a pink chocolate fountain, to exploding a watermelon with rubber bands in the park,” Leep said. “But the absolute weirdest thing we’ve done as part of our job would definitely have to be the gnome wedding.”
Conducting the rubber band-watermelon science experiment was part of the Junior Naturalist Parks Expedition at Westmoreland Park, Carte explained.
“In case you were wondering, the number of rubber bands it takes to make a watermelon explode all over you is 658,” she said.
She loves that she has a job that allows her to know these things.
“I truly love most everything about my job/′ Carte said. “Serving the community by providing affordable family fun is very rewarding.
“I mostly love the great group of people that I am so fortunate to get to work with at GHPRD. I am part of a team of dedicated professionals that consistently amaze me with their knowledge, skills and commitment to our community.... As a Daughter of Marshall University, I’ve seen firsthand the resilience of this community. I want to keep Huntington, West Virginia, alive with activity so that people will see the value of this city and choose to make a home here.”
Leep likes that Brady is forward-thinking and empowers her and Carte to try new and creative ways to serve the community, and she appreciates that she can serve under a park board that values a robust recreation program. She also loves her co-workers and the many volunteers who support the programs.
What Leep loves most about her work is being outside in the district’s beautiful parks.
“I love that Huntington is full of beautiful parks and facilities for individuals and families to visit to have fun and enjoy outdoor space ” Leep said. “Most people don’t realize that we actually have 14 parks in our district. In fact, almost every neighborhood in Huntington is close to one of our parks.
“I love the fact that we get to be an outlet for people to unwind from their busy lives and take some time to enjoy the simple act of having fun in the parks ” she said. “We have several children and families that attend almost every event or program we host, and just to know that we are making a positive impact on those kids and families is so worthwhile.”