Larry Barabino Jr.’s vision for the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission is simple: something for everyone.
Barabino, 48, is just shy of two months into his second stint leading recreation programs in New Orleans, and he sees an agency ripe for growth in its programming, with new sources of volunteers and mentors to call upon and expanded programs for those who have previously been left out of the options offered.
The recreation agency is more than just team sports programs and is aimed at more than just youth, Barabino said.
It should continue to push for new ways to serve people of all ages, he said. That includes raising awareness of its lesser-known programs such as archery, canoeing and other outdoor activities, as well as music and dance programs and exercise activities for adults and seniors.
“What I love to see is to have a family come to a place like this recreation center,” Barabino said while sitting in a multipurpose room at the Rosenwald Center on South Broad Street. “The whole family gets out of an old station wagon, all of them put their hands together and huddle and say, ‘break.’ And Dad goes in the fitness room, and the son goes to basketball, and the daughters come up here and do dance or ballet, and the other son goes to piano lessons.”
Barabino oversaw the city’s recreation department for three years after Hurricane Katrina before taking a job with the Children’s Defense Fund. His first time around, the needs were clear: rebuilding damaged or destroyed facilities and restarting programs as residents returned to the shattered city.
In the intervening years, new facilities have gone up, centers have reopened and the city-run Recreation Department was spun off into a quasi-independent agency, the Recreation Development Commission, partnered with a fundraising arm known as the New Orleans Recreation Development Foundation. The commission's board picked Barabino to lead it in December.
“Today, we have phenomenal facilities. The key component is making sure we’re doing the maintenance and upkeep of all of them,” he said.
One move Barabino is making is to set up an intramural sports program for teenagers in high school. Currently, the agency’s team sports accommodate only those younger than 14, a cutoff age that was created in part because most students would rather play sports for their high school than be in a less competitive league.
But that’s left a gap for those who don’t want to play in such a highly competitive environment or aren’t able to make the cut for those teams, Barabino said.
“If you stand across the street from a school at 3 or 3:15 when they’re loading the kids on a school bus, there are more kids that are getting on that school bus that are going home to do probably nothing than there are staying at that school to participate in football or basketball,” he said.
Similar plans are underway for an adult basketball league.
Barabino has also been in touch with the Special Olympics to bolster local programming for those with special needs.
NORDC is also reaching out to the Orleans Parish School Board and the various charter school operators in the city to partner on programming, something that Barabino described as a natural fit given that many playgrounds and fields are located near schools.
To help meet the need for coaches and other volunteers, Barabino has dropped a restriction put in by the previous administration that prevented paid NORDC staff members from also serving as volunteer coaches.
“It makes no sense to me to see someone who has put kids in college over the years” by coaching their teams “to then be told, ‘You have to sit in this gymnasium and you can’t volunteer and coach anymore,' ” Barabino said.
The department is also looking to partner with local universities and their fraternities and sororities to encourage college students to volunteer with NORDC as part of public service hours. That would mean bringing in not just more volunteers, but volunteers the teenagers who rely on NORDC are able to relate to better.
“For a young person to see a person that’s maybe a few years older than them who can say, ‘I just finished high school and I’ve been through what you’ve been through,’ it can inspire kids to be like, ‘I want to be him,’ " he said.