BANGOR, Maine — Six-year-old Landen Wilson shimmied out of the water at the Beth Pancoe Aquatic Center in Bangor recently and pattered over to his mother, Peggy Wilson, and his sister, Lillianah, who was sitting in a stroller. In the pool children splashed and giggled. Some were towed gently through the water by their instructors, who murmured words of encouragement, while others were working to refine their skill, their heads dunking under the water for the start of a breast stroke and resurfacing quickly, only to go back under again.
“Will you fix my goggles?” Landen asked. He is a student in level three of the Bangor Parks and Recreation swimming lesson program, one of many programs from the city organization that’s at capacity with a growing demand.
“I think the number of children have at least doubled from last year,” Peggy Wilson said, looking out into the pool at the children in other levels. “I think more and more parents are talking about it. The second we know it’s ready, we get them in.”
She’s not the only parent to register her children in the program as quickly as possible. “I put a reminder on my phone,” Camille Brace said. Two of her children take lessons.
Swimming lessons are structured in two-week increments, with three time spots within those two-week increments. There are three separate sessions held through the summer. Levels one, two and three are full.
Wilson is sure of one thing.
“When she’s 3, she’s in,” she says, pointing to Lillianah.
Bangor Parks and Rec has seen a significant uptick in recent years in the number of children participating in their programs. From summer camps, before- and after-school programs and more, their programs are filling up — and they’re filling up fast.
“We’ve always [had about] 280 to 300 kids [participating in our soccer program] and this last year we went up to over 400 kids,” Tim Baude, a recreation programmer at Bangor Parks and Rec, said in a recent interview at the city’s complex at 647 Main St.
As mostly volunteer-staffed activities like soccer have grown, the department doesn’t turn people away; they simply find more volunteers to accommodate the number of children participating.
“Without our volunteers we could never run the soccer program,” Baude said.
He said he has to recruit anywhere from 75 to 100 volunteers through the year to help keep up with demand.
“As we go we have to evaluate whether we can grow anymore. Lacrosse is a great example. We would love to see it grow, but in reality, how big can we grow it where we are now? Field space, coaching — all of that stuff is considered. Each year we have to evaluate. Soccer was a surprise last year. We jumped 200 kids in soccer, so two days before [it started] I was scrambling for 10 more coaches,” Baude said.
But for other programs, including Bangor Parks and Rec’s Kids Cave Summer Camps, there isn’t as much flexibility. Programs like that are staffed by employees and limited to the capacity of the spaces where they are held. The Kids Cave Summer Camps in particular filled up quickly this year — long before they started in mid-June.
“Last year and the year before you could sign up a week before and still get into some of the camps. This year, within a month things were full. It’s getting to the point where people are just waiting,” Debbie Gendreau, assistant director at the department, said.
And parents will continue to wait because they see the value in the programs Bangor Parks and Rec offers.
“The Parks and Recreation program through the city is one of the most important departments in the city. It offers so much to our residents through programs [such as] our youth summer camps and Kids Cave to the community garden, which continues to grow every year, and all of our fabulous winter programming. Our Parks and Recreation Department really brings a lot to our city’s quality of life. It’s something I am especially proud of,” Bangor city councilor Sarah Nichols told the BDN in an email interview.
For about $100 per week, per child, Bangor parents can send their children to the Kids Cave Summer Camps, of which there are three. Discounts are offered for enrolling multiple kids and for signing up for autopay. Kindergarten and first-graders attend summer camp at 14th Street School, second- and third-graders attend at Fairmount School and fourth- through sixth-graders stay at Mary Snow School. These camps run from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Gendreau and Baude, who have extensive experience managing parks and recreation programs in other parts of the state, have brought more programs to the city during their time in order to meet the need for activities for Bangor’s youth. Gendreau has been at Bangor Parks and Rec for nine years, and Baude has been there for 8½ years.
“When we see there’s a need for growth, there’s a need for change, we make it happen somehow,” Baude said. He began a summer track program that now draws about 100 kids. When he started at Bangor Parks and Rec it didn’t exist, but it has only grown through the years.
In addition to other programs, annual events such as the father/daughter dance have been drawing huge crowds.
“Our father/daughter dance had 750 people, and it filled up every year. We worked, we did some things and now we can take 1,000, and we still [sell out] and … have a waiting list,” Baude said.
As the programs through Bangor Parks and Rec have grown, Gendreau and Baude have had the opportunity to examine what exactly it is that is contributing to the ballooning participation.
“Yes, people need child care. In this day and age, people need quality care for their kids,” Gendreau said. “They need to know that their kids are safe and in a safe program, and I really feel that we provide that.”
But there are other factors that have contributed to the increase, as well.
“Looking at the growth, I think part of it is that we are very affordable,” Baude said. “I think we offer quality programs at very affordable prices for people. I think they come, and once they do a program or two, we become a destination for their children.”
Affordability is important, especially as the costs of child care continue to rise. But beyond cost, Baude thinks a user-friendly online registration system, where parents can sign up for most programs, pay and even set up auto-payments, has helped encourage growth.
But really, it’s the friendly, well-trained staff that matters most, he said.
“We can offer as many programs as we want, but if we don’t have the people there that parents like and kids like — that they trust and feel safe around — people aren’t going to keep coming back. I think that’s what we’ve worked really hard on — providing that and the training so they know how to handle situations,” Baude said.
Creating a welcoming environment in a building not originally intended for kids has helped, too.
“Let’s be honest, this building, if you just walk around, it’s an old armory. The gym is pretty nice but not the greatest. We don’t have the biggest rooms — we don’t have all that. But parents like our people, like what we do. I think they feel safe dropping their kids off each day or picking them up, knowing that the kids are going to be having fun,” Baude said.
Although summer care is a necessity for many parents once their children are out of school, before- and after-school programs during the school year also have seen an increase over the years, Gendreau said.
The before- and after-school program began in January 2011. The before-school program started with only five children in 2011 and ballooned to 92 during the 2015-2016 school year. The after-school program began with 14 children and most recently had 130 in the 2015-2016 school year.
Bangor Parks and Rec is growing out of their facility, though it’s uncertain how that might be addressed in the future.
“It’s fabulous that our Kids Cave programming has been so successful. That being said, we are not currently planning to expand the Parks and Recreation Department building itself,” Nichols said. “We are still making other improvements with our parks. For example, we just finished replacing the playground in the Bangor Gardens this past year, and in this upcoming year you will see a replacement of our playground equipment in Little City Park. We have a lot of needs throughout the city, and this coming year we as a council have decided to focus on improvements to our public transportation and health and community services.”
Bangor Parks and Rec has 13 full-time staff members who take care of the programs and maintenance of the city’s many resources. This summer, they employ 97 staff for the various programs under their control, and according to Gendreau, they’re short-staffed.
Despite the growth of their programs and their many responsibilities, Gendreau and Baude will continue to find a way to make it work, they said.
“We are here for the community. We are not here to be a revenue driven business,” Baude said. “We are here to provide for the community and provide for the citizens.”