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How Syracuse's Parks and Rec team is overcoming staffing gaps to keep summer fun

Menage Green, 16, fills out an application at a job fair for the city of Syracuse Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs department, May 21, 2022.
Tarryn Mento
Menage Green, 16, fills out an application at a job fair for the city of Syracuse Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs department, May 21, 2022.

The city of Syracuse's Crawfish Festival is a celebration of the aforementioned crustacean. Vendors are also slinging shrimp, clams, beignets and gumbo. But at this year's celebration, the city didn’t have enough people to keep the trash bins from overflowing. So special events coordinator Britney Farmer stepped in. The Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs department employee took on an eight-hour shift pulling bag after bag of trash from the bins outside food stands.

"We are not afraid to get our hands dirty and help," Farmer said.

The department is struggling to staff up for the summer, its busiest time. It even cut the number of pools it plans to open this season because it can’t find enough lifeguards. Labor challenges are raging across the country and the public sector is faring worse than the private sector, especially local government agencies. At the city's Parks, Recreation and Youth Programs department, staffing issues already have employees pulling double duty.

Farmer said dedicated full-time members of the city's Parks and Rec team have kept things running smoothly amid the hiring challenges. But department commissioner Julie LaFave said the staffing needs have put added pressure on her team.

"I don't want to say our staff internally have suffered, but they've certainly taken the brunt," LaFave said. "But Parks and Recreation is unique in that the people who are passionate this field, we like to become kind of a jack-of-all-trades, and we're willing to help each other out."

Recreation supervisor Trevor Wallace recently showed up to work out of breath and a little sweaty. He stopped by the city’s Meachem Park to check on the softball fields. The city's contracted mowers had cut the overgrown grass but left lawn clippings behind. Wallace cleared it off on his way into the office.

"Just trying to make it look nicer," he said.

The parks and rec department is hoping to add more passionate members to their team. They’re still looking for dozens of lifeguards, plus more summer aides that run activities at pools and playgrounds for kids on summer vacation.

Sixteen-year-old Menage Green is hoping he’s one of them. He turned out at last month’s hiring fair because of the department's emphasis on youth programs.

"I feel like I'm like a good influence on people that are younger than me, so I feel like I'd be like a good fit," Green said.

He said he doesn’t want to see other young people go down the wrong path.

"People doing drugs, like shooting and stuff, robbing people—I want them to stay away from that type of stuff," Green said.

So he put pen to paper and filled out a job application. Less than a month later, he was hired.

This is the second story in a two-part series that comes from WAER's City Limits: A Working Dilemma podcast.

Tarryn Mento is an award-winning digital, audio and video journalist with experience reporting from Arizona, Southern California, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Tarryn produces in-depth and investigative content for WAER while overseeing the station's student reporter experience. She is also an adjunct professor at Syracuse University.