Hyatt Park is still a work in progress, but Robert Geter says it’s in a much better state now than it was when he arrived as recreation leader in August 2011. After working with police to weed out negative influences, Geter happily looks back at the turnaround in the North Columbia park.
By Avery Wilks
March 31, 2014
Robert Geter saw drugs being dealt in the doorway of the community center on his first day working as recreation leader at Hyatt Park in North Columbia, and that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Geter says the park was a hotbed for bullying, gang recruiting and theft when he was transferred there by the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department in August 2011. Police Maj. Melron Kelly, now head of the entire uniform division but at the time head of the department’s North Region, says fights often broke out and that homeless people slept on park grounds at night.
Geter, 60, who played college basketball at East Carolina, said he quickly decided to change the park’s culture. He and others on the staff began strictly enforcing park rules to weed out those who weren’t coming for what he calls “wholesome recreation,” and he enlisted the North Region police just across the street in the Eau Claire Town Hall complex to monitor park events and carry out regular drug and gang raids.
The neighborhood asked for surveillance cameras (PDF), and the city installed them in and around the community center in late 2013. And the park, which Geter said offered only an open gym when he arrived, now provides roughly two dozen programs for patrons of all ages, said Mary Thurman, the park’s director.
For Geter, it’s been remarkable to see people – many afraid to come to Hyatt Park before – now participating in programs that include intramural basketball leagues, line dancing and Zumba. The park remains a work in progress by all accounts, but Geter says it’s been rewarding to see it become what he considers one of Columbia’s safest parks.
Columbia Voice spoke with Geter about the turnaround and his role in it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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What do you think contributed to the fact that the park was a little bit unsafe? Do you think that was reflective of the community?
Well, the community had a lot to do with it. … Young men in the area sought and found negatives to become a part of, and being that Hyatt Park was their place to come and play, they brought all of their play toys here to Hyatt. That’s druggin’, gambling, that’s fighting. …
All of the negatives came with them here at this site and, not to step on the toes of other staff, but I think the staff that was here before didn’t have a desire to teach, didn’t have a desire to work. Their primary objective was to get paid, and when you’re working for the citizens of Columbia, your job is very important. It’s not only just to get paid. It’s to make it safe, to make it fun, to make it happen, to provide, to assure them that we’re here for them.
How vigilant did the staff have to be in the few years that the park was turning around in order to keep things going in the right direction?
Really, we had to really step forward and … put our chest up. We had to stop people in their tracks and tell them that they were not allowed here. You can say we were policing, but we did get the support of our local police officers.
We’d call, make phone calls and have them to come in if we thought certain things are going on. But we had to stand tall … and let them know that we were not going to take a back seat to that nonsense that they had going on for the last few years.
Was there one particular moment throughout that process that you kind of looked around and said: “You know, wow. This is making a difference. We’re actually getting something done here”? …
There was a time period in which that I really saw change. … I noticed that a number of our kids that were participating in our athletics were now a part of the school district athletic programs. …
The actual perception of the youth here – I mean it really changed. We were winning in our games, in our programs. We made the district, both winners. The kids showed us that they were enjoying what they were doing. We were getting more programs with our adults. Zumba came in. Our line dance jumped. Even our senior citizen groups began to grow. …
Coming from an athletic background like you do, how rewarding was it for you to see that athletics – and that some of the kids that wouldn’t have been coming started to come and started to play sports at the park – how rewarding was it for you to see that that was one of the things that led to the turnaround? …
I had very good mentors coming up. I had good coaches, and they taught me discipline. They taught me self-respect. They taught me how to share, how to care. And that’s what we brought forth for these young men.
So it’s very rewarding to me because the elements that were given to me that I was giving to them was making them smile, was making them proud, was allowing them to participate. … So when you can take athletics and give a child an opportunity to grow as an individual, it makes him a better person. …
How do you think this park and its turnaround have contributed to the community as a whole?
There’s some things still need to be done, but what I look at is in the long run. Again, when these young men can come here and feel that they’re safe, and they can come in and they can get a tool that they can take out into their homes, back to their schools, back to their friends, and these friends and these homes and these places realize that everyone is getting along, everyone is doing fine, it’s a harmonious situation, it really makes the community feel – or better yet, be – prouder. …
And what it does, you know it’s just like a little ant. If you give that ant some poison and he takes back into the nest, they’re all going to die off. But if you give him a good food and he takes back to the nest, everybody seems to nurture; everybody seems to grow.
Well that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to give all these kids something positive so they can take back home, so that now their homes become joyous, their neighborhoods seems to be happier because they have people that they can speak of that has come out of their community that are doing positive things.