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Macomb Park District Director Rachel Lenz
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Forever Home: Macomb Park District Director Rachel Lenz

April 25, 2019


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Video by Phil Weiss, University Television


NOTE: This is the fourth installment in a series, "Forever Home," which features video interviews with WIU alumni who have chosen to make Macomb (and/or WIU) their home after graduation.

Forever Home: Macomb Park District Director Rachel Lenz

MACOMB, IL – For Macomb Park District Director Rachel Lenz, choosing Western Illinois University as her college home was always about looking up to those she admired to help guide her path. Choosing Macomb as her home after graduation was about staying in a community she admired and saw as a great match for her career goals.

Lenz, who is originally from Knoxville, IL, received her bachelor's degree in Recreation Park and Tourism Administration (RPTA) from Western in 2009, and her master's degree in RPTA in 2012. She chose WIU for both degrees because her mother, Barbara (Bogard) Lenz, also went to WIU and has been a guiding force in her life. As a student, Barbara worked in Thompson Hall and was a member of the Leatherneck track team.

"My mom is somebody who taught me what motivation is and who has just kind of led me through the life experiences, but in such a way that makes it exciting and joyous," said Lenz. "Both of my parents have been wonderful examples for me, but I've really wanted to follow in my mom's footsteps, so there was no other option for me - it was always Western Illinois University. When I got here, I learned it's a fantastic University, so that was kind of a bonus."

Lenz said she came to campus initially to study therapeutic recreation after being inspired by work on a mission trip at a camp that provides services to those with disabilities.

"I had never experienced that before," she said. "I didn't know what it was called, but I wholesomely fell in love with it -fell in love with the people that I had the opportunity to work with. Then, come to find out that the WIU program was one of the better ones in the state for therapeutic rec. After discovering that major, being involved with the major, the professors and the hands-on experience they encourage, and just the passion that you come to find with the professors at Western Illinois University… I was sold. It was just the right choice."

Once on campus, Lenz worked in the Thompson Hall Dining Center as a dishwasher, eventually working her way up to become a student manager. She was a trumpet player for the Marching Leathernecks for two years and active with a now-disbanded organization similar to Campus Students for Christ. She was also a four-year member of the Student Therapeutic Recreation Society (STRS) on campus.

"In the STRS, it was very important for us to do volunteer services involved with individuals with disabilities for that organization," she said. "It was another opportunity for me to gain experience in the field, to gain learning opportunities and to really have a resume builder."

But the opportunity was more meaningful to Lenz because it kicked off her involvement in the McDonough County Special Recreation Association (MCSRA) and showed her a career path she was passionate about.

Graduate school was not in Lenz's long-term plan, but WIU RPTA Department Chair Emeritus Dale Adkins encouraged her to continue her studies at Western. She said it was that one meeting that changed the course of her career trajectory. While Lenz was studying for her master's degree, she became a graduate assistant with the Macomb Park District and began working with the MCSRA, which she helped expand.

"MCSRA was a very small organization at the time, and the only employee was the grad assistant, and it was almost a full-time job," she said.

Lenz soon realized that the MCSRA would likely disband after her graduation, so she decided to stay in Macomb because she had a vision that the organization was something vital to the region. The MCSRA serves between 100-150 people with disabilities each year. The age range of participants goes from 8-80 and now serves people from adjoining counties.

"We do Special Olympics programs, which are probably the most well-known - basketball, bowling, softball, track and field - But then we do a lot of life skills classes," said Lenz. "We work with the dietetics department right here at Western Illinois University, and those students provide cooking classes for our participants. They'll come in and they'll learn how to make a three-course meal; they'll learn about food safety and sanitation and how to use a knife properly. It's a really wonderful program."

MCSRA also partners with WIU Athletics, attending games and attending clinics hosted by WIU teams and players.

Lenz said her experience with the MCSRA was a great challenge, and through the development she was able to bring to the SRA, the Park District Board was able to see what she could to accomplish in a short period of time.

"They created the opportunity for me to develop special events for Macomb, and through that I was able to create mass events for Macomb," she said.

Lenz has added numerous community events to the city, including Movies in the Park, Flatland Summer Jam, the Macomb Blues Fest, The Randolph Street Rendezvous musical events and so many more.

"It's been a really great experience to see the community latch onto these programs," she said. "For our movies in the park, for the three-movie series, we probably saw about 5,000 people at the movies altogether, and that is huge for Macomb. For the community to be so invested, and to appreciate that event so much, means the world to me."

The movies include a 30-foot inflatable movie screen and Lenz said she is seeing local residents and students becoming familiar with the program.

In January 2017, Lenz was named executive director of the Macomb Park District, after the retirement of Ray Peterson. She believes her time at WIU helped her realize her potential and was something that helped her earn the position.

"That's something that I've found to be abundant in Macomb and at Western Illinois University; there is so much potential," she said. "And you don't often see those things until you are taught how to see them in yourself and through that lesson or through Western showing me that I could do my best; I could do better than what people expected of me."

Lenz said she is also excited that WIU students are seeing value in new Macomb Park District programming.

"I'm excited that students feel a sense of home when they're here because they see those events, or maybe they see some of the new equipment that we've brought to the park. Like out at Veteran's Park, where we have the new fitness equipment," she said. "Those are things that are regularly seen in parks in the Chicagoland area and not so much in Midwestern Illinois."

One goal Lenz has set for the Macomb Park District is to strengthen and develop new partnerships with local agencies. Those partnerships include numerous WIU academic and athletic departments, including RPTA.

"Professors here are really wonderful at looking into the community for hands-on experience for their students, so I think that's really valuable," she said. "Although the educational component is key, and having that textbook learning is essential, hands-on experience… that can't be taught. That's something that I really appreciate about Western Illinois University as a student, or I guess I should say as an alumna from the program, and as a community member. It's a win-win for everybody."

In addition to drawing on those partnerships, Lenz has also served as an adjunct faculty member in the WIU RPTA department. As a certified therapeutic recreation specialist, she saw teaching as an opportunity to mentor young professionals entering the program.

"I think that's an essential aspect of being an alumna of a program, and as a professional in a career field," she said. "You want to be part of the development of the next wave of professionals that come through."

Giving back to the community is also important to Lenz, so she serves on numerous committees with community betterment as a goal. Her volunteer work includes the Macomb Rotary Board, co-chair of the Heritage Days Committee, co-chair of the McDonough County CEO Board, serving as a Macomb Area Chamber of Commerce ambassador, chair of the McDonough County Quality of Life Committee and a board member for the Center for Youth and Family Solutions and the Volunteers Interested in Benefiting Everyone (VIBE) committee. (which was retired in 2018)

Lenz said it is the potential she sees in Macomb and its residents that made her decide to remain here.

"There are so many possibilities in Macomb, and with Western Illinois University, and I love having the opportunity to have some freedom and creativity in developing new products or services or being a part of initiatives that are new to Macomb and help develop the economy," she said. "It's the potential - I mean there's so many opportunities that have been untapped in Macomb and again, with Western Illinois University and the development that I received as a student, you know, I enjoy the opportunity to pay it back."

Lenz said she is impressed with the impact WIU has on the Macomb community and how each depends on the success of the other. She has the unique perspective of being a WIU alumni and having a pivotal role in creating opportunities for Macomb residents. She said it was starting to create events for the community and getting to know local residents that made her realize Macomb is her new home.

"People saw what I was trying to accomplish with the community and the support that I received, and continue to receive to this day, is overwhelming," she said. "I will always give Macomb credit for being one of the most supportive communities I've ever been able to be a part of or even experienced. To be a part of a community that never stops giving and never stops being generous is just humbling. I think when I started to be the recipient of that generosity and that support is really when I felt I was home."

For more information about WIU, visit wiu.edu.

Posted By: Jodi Pospeschil (JK-Pospeschil@wiu.edu)
Office of University Relations