She's got game - year round
By Rachel Coleman
Donna Nelson-Atkins likes her work as athletic activities director at Liberal’s Parks & Recreation Department — the challenge of organizing extremely excited children into teams that play by the rules, the flurry of anticipation on sign-up day, the sound of the whistle when the game starts.
But her absolute favorite part of the job is seeing the kids on the fringes finally taste success. It might come in the sound of a crack as the bat connects to the baseball for the first time ever. Or it might appear in the radiant smile of a child dribbling the soccer ball up the field.
“You have some kids who struggle, and if they get a coach who works with them and they finally hit the ball, they stand there at home plate, like ‘What do I do?’ and the people in the stands are screaming, ‘Go, go!’ and they’re ecstatic,” she sighed. “Yeah, that’s what I like.”
Those moments are especially sweet for Nelson-Atkins, who sees her entire life as preparation for the job.
She played sports all through her childhood, and recalls those competitive days with a sign that’s part exasperation, part thankfulness. Growing up in a single-parent home was not easy, she said, and she turned to sports when her situation left her feeling discouraged.
“When I was young, I was called a rebel,” she said, “and I don’t think I would have made it through without the coaches I knew. They really knew how to handle that attitude of mine. I did a lot of laps.”
As an adult, Nelson-Atkins continued to enjoy sports — as a spectator. Her two sons competed in different venues, one a keen wrestler, the other a contender in the Special Olympics. Nelson-Atkins also did her share of coaching and later began to officiate.
“Even now, kids will come up to me in the store and say, ‘Hi, Coach,’” she said. “It’s makes you feel good, to have that connection.”
But it was only after 20 years at the Seward County Sheriff’s Department that Nelson-Atkins applied for the open spot at Liberal Parks and Rec. Working in a law enforcement office, she had gotten a close-up look at juvenile crime and the problems that often follow. That perspective continues to guide her passion for the programs she administers.
“I think it’s important for a community to provide ways to keep kids active in sports,” she said. “There are so many bad things they can get involved with, but if we give them options, they’re less likely to end up in the system.”
To that end, Nelson-Atkins takes the long view about her program roster.
“We’re really in the business of developing the kids’ athletic skills, sportsmanship, helping them form their character,” she said. “When there are problems in their home life or other difficulties, it really helps for us to know about that. The coaches need to know about the ones who need that little extra attention.”
Nelson-Atkins confesses she has a soft spot for the volunteer coaches in the program — “they’re excellent,” she said — and for the children who need them most.
“I remember what it’s like. You feel you have to work harder to prove yourself, to reassure yourself that you’re as good as the other kids, even if your home life isn’t,” she said.
This summer, Nelson-Atkins said Parks and Rec programs impacted nearly 500 children who played T-ball, baseball, softball and summer soccer. She hopes to increase the participants, especially among girls age 10 and older.
“The girls’ softball program is growing. In years past, we didn’t have that many, but it’s very rewarding to see them come, develop and then go on to play high school ball,” she said. “We want to build on that. We’ve just got to get the girls convinced so they’ll give it a try. The kids we had this summer — 490 — that’s nothing out of Liberal’s population. There are so many kids we’re missing. But we’re gonna get ‘em. I want more kids!”
For Nelson-Atkins, it’s a rare day that isn’t game day. She runs men’s and women’s softball leagues, a summer men’s basketball program, and co-ed softball that runs through early autumn. As summer wrapped up, she already had her mind on little-league soccer and additional winter programs for youth and adults.
“December is slowest, but then we’ll head right on into basketball,” she said. “I’ve been in this job for two years, and the programs have grown.” The interest in men’s basketball was especially intense, she noted: “It’s just overwhelming sometimes.”
But that’s a good thing, she said.
“In a lot of ways, Liberal is just now catching up to the way recreation programs operate back east. We’re working with our kids, giving them the tools to play well. We’re publicizing what we have to offer, and people are signing up,” she said. “It makes this a better community.”