• Mike Illg’s recreational opportunities show tight connections
By Naomi Klouda
How is it a city’s parks and recreation program takes on even spiritual significance?
Just ask Mike Illg, coordinator of the Community Recreation Program. The discussion will lead to his passionate belief in the three secrets to happiness.
“We have 24 hours in a day. Typically, we have eight hours to sleep and eight hours to work, and what will you do with the rest of your eight hours? That defines who or what we will be as an individual, as a family member and who we are in the community,” he said.
Now in his 10th year as the city’s rec coordinator, Illg is a one-man city department who, sooner or later, has been in contact with most segments of the town. It was enough name recognition that, when he ran for a school district seat, he came in just 10 votes shy of the incumbent.
And he’s brought statewide attention to Homer’s community recreation program with the Outstanding Organization Award and the Facility Excellence Awards presented by the Alaska Recreation and Parks Association. The award recognizes agencies that make great contributions – such as the Homer Playground Project that built a new Karen Hornaday Park in a mere week. Illg represented the city to help make it happen.
Why so much passion about community rec?
“Physical health, emotional health and spiritual health are all connected to recreational opportunities,” he said. The three keys to personal happiness, according to his studies and a recent documentary, are found in personal self-development, establishing meaningful relationships and having a sense of community or sense of belonging.
“These are the fundamental components of a person’s happiness that can be fulfilled through recreation either passively or through organized events,” he said.
Illg realizes the influential elements of recreation throughout his life time of participating in sports and overcoming an impairment that he said he never let get him down. Born and raised in Lowell, Mass., just north of Boston, Illg contracted a high fever at the age of 6 that caused permanent sensory-neural hearing loss. He is considered “profoundly deaf” but with the help of hearing aids and through long practice in lip reading, Illg wasn’t limited by this disability.
“I have never considered myself disabled or deaf. I’m just a human being like everyone else,” he said.
In fact, playing sports in Lowell became his way to grow as an individual, connect to others and learn the meaning of hard work.
“I played football and wrestled for many years. This was a tremendously positive outlet for me and many others, especially growing up in the city with limited opportunities and crazy things happening all the time. While I never was “the best”, I was part of a wrestling culture that required us to do our best, and I believe that has prepared me well for all aspects of my life,” he said. He’s also a runner with a couple of marathons under his belt.
After graduating from high school, Illg went straight to Northeastern University in Boston to study pre-law.
“I realized after the first year that it just wasn’t for me,” he said. Instead he went on to earn an associate degree in liberal arts and sciences from Middlesex Community College. There, he served as the student body president and was chosen to deliver the address at graduation. A generous scholarship also was among his recognitions, so he was on his way to a degree in speech pathology and audiology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
But a trip to Alaska, joining his sister Vicki Lowe, interrupted that plan. He contacted wrestling Coach Chris Perk about an assistant wrestling coach job at the Homer High School in 2000 for his planned three-month stay.
“And I didn’t go back. I was enamored by the beauty, the community and the friendly openness of Homer,” he said. In 2003, he was hired as the Community Schools Coordinator which is now the Community Recreation program. He also met his wife, Cheryl Wambach and they married in 2007. Their daughter, Madilyn, was born in 2008.
Through the years, Illg said the community recreation program has seen stable interest and participation from the community members, especially since in 2006 voters agreed to take over the Community schools program from the school district. It’s also stumbled on the challenges of not having a secure home for classes and programs. The local high school and middle school is leased to the city for the program at a cost of $6,000 a year.
The scheduled and advertised community recreation activities are all subjected to being moved or cancelled if and when the school district needs the space. As a result, program space is limited and days/times can be confusing for participants, eventually leading to cancelled programs and opportunities.
Nevertheless, the number of participants is significant: in 2011, 2,862 participated in indoor and outdoor programs. Some 116 programs and six special events were offered. And they recorded 2,632 in donated volunteer hours of an estimated $56,000 value.
To bring greater knowledge or hopefully funding advantages, Illg keeps on an ever-moving course. He tested and achieved status as one of only three Certified Park and Recreation Professionals in the state. He completed a Bachelor of Science Degree from Northern Arizona University in recreation management and is nearly finished with a Master’ of Science from the University of Illinois. In that program, his concentration is on recreation, sports and tourism, the three areas that bind together his roles.
“This correlates completely with Homer. Tourism is basically when people spend lots of money to travel from far away to recreate in your community,” he said.
Since parks and recreation opportunities relate to the whole picture, Illg said he likes to bring a broad focus. “It’s about creating and supporting a culture where creative, healthy and productive recreational opportunities is expected and valued in the community. Recreation is simply not about playing sports or walking in park, it is the process of refreshing and re-creating one’s self through any medium: art, song, play, or learning” he said. “Think of recreation as a preventative health care option or a wellness program for you and your family”.
The benefits relate back to those three keys to happiness that have become Illg’s gospel to spread far and wide:
“Good things happen when you take care of yourself, your relationships and your community through recreation, learning and play,” he said
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