By DANIEL SUDDEATH
NEW ALBANY —
Kathy Wilkerson reminded the New Albany-Floyd County Parks Board that she still had a pulse the evening they unanimously voted to name the Griffin Activity Center after her.
Buildings are named after people that have passed away, and Wilkerson stressed that she’s very much still alive. Despite her objections, the board insisted on recognizing a woman who recently began her fifth decade as a local parks employee.
Wilkerson — who is NA-FC Parks Recreation Director — started her 41st year with the department Nov. 30. Her career embarked under then Parks Superintendent Sam Peden, as Wilkerson worked at the West Market Street Recreation Center.
Wilkerson loved working with children, and her enthusiasm was noticed by her superiors.
She quickly was promoted to a position at the Vance Recreation Center, and it wasn’t long after that when Peden asked if she’d be willing to work in administration.
“I remember the day I refused, and he would not take no for an answer,” Wilkerson said, as she added she eventually caved-in to Peden’s request.
“That was a decision I soon learned was a good one.”
The department often struggled for funding, and parks employees had to be creative to keep children’s activities going, Wilkerson recalled. Sometimes that meant buying arts supplies with your own money, she said.
But like a teacher, the parks employees loved kids and realized dipping into their own pockets to support them was just part of the job.
Wilkerson saw the city and county merge into a joint parks system in 1994, and worked through a lengthy debate this year that resulted in the pending split of the department.
Just like Wilkerson has been trusted to mentor and supervise children for more than 40 years, she’s been tasked with leading the New Albany Parks Department during its infancy phase. She will serve as interim director of the new department beginning Jan. 1, though she’s only agreed to hold the position for a short time.
By spring, Wilkerson will again be immersed in planning programs for kids. The Griffin Activity Center has been at the heart of her efforts, as inner-city children flock to the facility for entertainment as well as instruction.
“This is a safe place, and the kids know we have something going on all the time,” Wilkerson said. “We have very strict rules at our center, yet it’s a fun place to be.”
With all the time she’s invested in imploring residents to come to the Griffin Center, she’s now worried they might be confused with it being renamed the Kathy Wilkerson Center.
But her peers and co-workers are accustomed to her humility.
“I just think she’s the Mother Teresa of Floyd County — that’s what I call her,” said NA-FC Parks Superintendent Roger Jeffers. “She’s just so willing to help anybody out. She starts early and finishes late to make sure everything is done.”
Her work isn’t confined to just helping children, Jeffers said. From senior citizens to the disabled, Wilkerson has pioneered several programs in Floyd County, he continued.
“She took on the Special Olympics when no one else would do it,” Jeffers said of the local event for the disabled organized by the parks department.
Wilkerson also teaches multiple classes for senior citizens which often get overlooked because of how much work she does with children, Jeffers added.
“It would take five people to replace her,” he said.
NA-FC Programs Director Amy Salazar added to the praise of Wilkerson by her co-workers.
“She’s a great mentor. I’ve learned a lot from her and hope to continue to learn more,” Salazar said.
Scott Klink is the outgoing chairman of the NA-FC Parks Board. He said the city will be blessed to have Wilkerson to guide the municipal parks department when it launches next year.
“She does a wonderful job with the parks for the community. I just can’t say enough good things about her,” Klink said. “I care about her a great deal, and I’m excited for her and I wish her the best of luck in her new role.”
Wilkerson doesn’t have any plans to retire anytime soon, though she admitted she doesn’t dwell on the idea very often.
“Every day is a new opportunity, a new challenge, and that’s a good job to have,” Wilkerson said.
When asked what her favorite memories have been, she returned to what inspired her to work for the parks department initially — the children.
“I think the best part of my 40 years of service has been watching the kids grow up,” Wilkerson said. “They’re learning life can get better, and they’re meeting challenges.”