NEW LENOX – Thursday was Shirley Braglia’s last day in the office.
Braglia, director of recreation for the New Lenox Park District, retires after more than 30 years with the district, a career that began as a part-time gymnastics instructor in 1985.
Through her years with the park district, Braglia also has held the titles of gymnastics instructor, gymnastics coordinator, program coordinator, recreation coordinator, recreation supervisor and recreation superintendent.
She’s increased the district’s opportunities for recreation for people of all ages. But one thing has not changed, and that’s Braglia’s love for recreation, which began in her childhood, even before her first job as a day camp counselor for the Chicago Park District.
That was 1972. Braglia was 13 and said she was paid $1 a day “to keep kids entertained.” Braglia had her own group of 10 to 15 children, which she moved from station to station.
Camp went from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. five days a week for six weeks. It also was free, although campers brought their own lunches.
“We had track and field every day and a craft room with wonderful crafts,” Braglia said. “We had circle time, where we sang camp songs and read books. The kids had wood shop and went to swimming lessons. We did field trips to the zoo, Rainbow Beach and different areas in the Chicagoland area. It was great fun.”
Soon, Braglia was running the camp through a work-study program at her high school.
“I’d leave school at noon and work from 2 to 10,” Braglia said. “I knew I wanted to be in physical education of some sort. Recreation was not a big, huge thing back then. Of course, as far as majoring in college went, very few colleges offered recreation as a major. Illinois State was one, and Chicago State was another.”
Braglia attended Illinois State University her freshman year, “didn’t care that much for it,” and then transferred to Chicago State University the next year on a volleyball scholarship. She said that the recreation program offered “a little bit of everything” – from camp counseling, leadership and budgeting to billiards.
She earned a Bachelor of Science in education with recreation as her focus in 1981. She married Dave Braglia, moved to New Lenox in 1983, had twin boys and began working four to six hours a week for the New Lenox Park District when her sons were 9 months old.
At the time, the park district was small, Braglia said – only the Lions Community Center and the Lions Den, which was a building off Cedar Road. The equipment for the gymnastics program was donated from the former Oakview Junior High School, she added.
“There were 16 parks, and we only had 338 acres at the time,” Braglia said. “Currently, we have 38 parks and 705 acres of land.”
Braglia said that when she became full-time in 1995, the park district only offered 45 programs in the summer. This summer, it’s 350.
The park district also offers three preschool classes. The children’s basketball program has more than 600 players.
“Look at the golf courses,” Braglia said. “Everyone is saying golf is going downhill, but we do over 30,000 rounds each year, which is huge.”
Two football associations, a soccer association and a baseball association are just several independent sports groups that use park district property, Braglia said.
“Those associations run their own organizations, but they still have to follow by park district guidelines,” Braglia said.
What the New Lenox Park District needs is its own recreation center, Braglia said, especially if the district keeps expanding.
“When I first moved here in 1983, the population was 7,600 for the village. Right now, the village and township is serving 62,000. That is a huge number,” Braglia said.
People today want to be healthy and live a long, healthy life, Braglia said. The more active adults become, the more active they want their kids to be. But kids today spend more time on electronic devices, she said.
Safety concerns make it difficult for kids to “go to the park at 10 in the morning and be back in time for dinner,” Braglia said.
That’s where park districts step in to help get kids outside moving. Braglia said parents want their kids engaging in outside games and activities.
“And we want them to do it,” Braglia said.
According to a news release from the New Lenox Park District, Director of Recreation Shirley Braglia “created, oversaw and brought to fruition” the following accomplishments:
• Achieved the National Parks and Recreation Association’s Certified Parks and Recreation Professional designation in 2002 and continued to maintain annual membership requirements through ongoing educational seminars and classes for the past 15 years.
• A before and after-school care program through an intergovernmental agreement with New Lenox School District 122. The program began with one school and approximately 50 students to all four school campuses and over 700 participants.
• The procurement and long-standing agreement with Lincoln-Way High School District #210 for the park district to obtain gym space and fitness center privileges for residents.
• Played an integral part in the planning, development and procurement of over $2 million in government grant funding, which resulted in park district firsts: splash pads, fishing ponds, concession buildings as well as state-of-the-art playground park developments