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PlaceMakers: Lara Hitchcock talks Recreation and Wellness in the Presidio

Monday, Jul 11, 2016 Category History; Park Management; Recreation and Wellness

Lara Hitchcock has worked for the Presidio Community YMCA for sixteen years. She started as Camp Director at the Letterman site and is now the Executive Director for the Presidio and Point Bonita YMCA. She's also a Presidio Institute Fellow. Lara is passionate about getting youth outdoors and engaging people in wellness. We talked to her about the changes in the park she's witnessed over the years, her work with the YMCA, and her experience as a Fellow at the Presidio Institute.

You've worked in the Presidio through most of its transition from a military post to national park. What changes have you seen through the years?

My first memory of the Presidio predates my work at the Y – it was 1996 and I had just moved to San Francisco. Riding MUNI, I asked the driver to let me off at Crissy Field to meet up with a soccer team I had just joined. The driver looked at me like I was crazy, and reluctantly let me off into a vast, empty field to (hopefully) find my friends. Just six months later, I joined the Presidio Community YMCA team as it opened its doors. We were one of the first organizations in the park, and you could really feel that "newness" here. You didn't bump into anyone while walking around the Presidio at that time, and there weren't any places to eat. (Speaking of places to eat – as the Y's Camp Director, I ran our first summer of programming in a long, drafty building on Ruger Street at what is now the Presidio Social Club restaurant!)

Over the past 20 years, the Presidio has undergone an amazing transformation; it's now a bustling place to work and recreate, whether on Crissy Field or on the Main Post. And I now "bump" into colleagues and neighbors all the time, which makes this large park feel like a small town.

The YMCA has deep roots in the Presidio. Its presence was first established here in 1898, where it served as a place for enlisted men to recreate while stationed in the post. It also acted as support for our veterans as they adjusted back to civilian life. How have the Y's programs and membership evolved over the years?

As an organization, the Y has a legacy of responding to the needs of its local community through healthy living, youth development, and social responsibility. Back in 1898, that meant establishing tents in the Presidio and outreaching to soldiers. In the early 1920s, we served servicemen at Letterman Hospital with athletics, lodging, and entertainment. Today, the YMCA of San Francisco has 14 branches in SF, Marin, and San Mateo. Although our work may look different, we remain focused on health, youth, and social responsibility.

For the Presidio Y, this means providing inspiring wellness classes for our members, teaching urban youth to ride bikes, delivering summer camp experiences for kids while their parents work, being a place of community for seniors in our aqua aerobics class, or facilitating a support system for cancer survivors in our Living Strong Living Well program.

The Y has many programs that serve kids, from Y Bike to school programs to Y Makers and swim lessons. What role do you think the Presidio can have in shaping the lives of young people?

For our 160+ years, youth development has always been a core focus for the Y. When young people have good adult role models, opportunities to skill-build, and a focus on relationship building, they can become strong adults and contributors to our community. And as a place, the Presidio has a great opportunity to shape the lives of young people – this urban national park is their park, in their backyard. It helps inform their ideas about community – about access, about health, and about opportunity. I see the Y shaping the lives of our youth every day in my work, and also as a parent.

Many programs at the Y help people get healthy by getting them moving outdoors. What do you feel is the connection between nature and wellness?

This is an area in which the Y has been extremely focused. We know nature experiences not only inspire awe, wonder, and exploration, but they also greatly improve our ability to make decisions and develop self-confidence. And yet, we also know that many youth in San Francisco have never had significant outdoor experiences. As the Y works to strengthen our community, it's important that we provide our members and the public with outdoor wellness programs, and that we remove barriers for youth and families who have not yet had nature experiences.

Last year, we launched the Let's Move Outside program (in partnership with the National Park Service, Presidio Trust, and Golden Gate Parks Conservancy), which provides free week-long summer camp experiences to more than 400 youth, focused on playing , learning, serving, and working in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA).

You've had an interest in leadership development throughout your career, and you're currently a fellow at the Presidio Institute. What has that experience been like for you, and is it influencing your work at the Presidio Y?

I love to continue my own leadership practice and was honored to be chosen for this year's Presidio Institute Fellows program; it's already been an incredible experience and I'm only mid-way through the program. The Institute has pulled together a group of leaders from across the country, and we're exploring how to best solve complex issues across sectors (government, non-profit, corporate, and philanthropy). This is hugely relevant in my work at the Y – both with cross-sector teams addressing systemic community issues, as well as in our daily work with partners in delivering programs to the community.

Do you bring your own family to the Presidio? If so, what do you do here?

The Presidio is really a part of me and a part of my family. In addition to working here, my husband and I lived at Baker Beach years ago, and we were married at the Presidio Officers’ Club back in 2002 (too bad we didn’t wait for the beautiful renovation!). And my kids know this park like the back of their hand – they’re here nearly every day. They attend Presidio Y Camp all summer long, and my younger son Oliver just learned to ride his bike there (he’s so proud of himself!). My older son, Colten, has been really into the Y’s teen camp, Locally Grown, where they explore the park and do lots of woodworking and maker activities. For fun, my family loves to go on hikes, explore the bunkers, and take “zones” on Turf Game (a Swedish scavenger hunt app). Colten loves Wood Line​ and Spire​, and Oliver has a penchant for dinners at Arguello.  My favorite thing to do in the Presidio is find a new stretch of trail​ that I haven't yet run or walked. I also love to stop by and see the waves surge over the rusty chains on a turbulent day at Fort Point.

What's next for the Presidio Y?

There's always something next!  We're expanding our work with Veterans, and developing a greater array of teen programs and volunteer opportunities. Our YBike program has scaled across the city as we look at new ways to make sure all SF youth experience bike and pedestrian safety. We serve more than 1,000 people each day as the Presidio's community and wellness center. I'm proud that the Y is an integral part of the community in the Presidio and that we continue to evolve as part of this dynamic urban national park.