Two weeks before his first official day as director of recreation and community engagement for the village of Poynette, Shamus O’Reilly was already learning more about the parks in the area.
On April 6, the Parks and Recreation Commission toured all eight village parks as it works on its new five-year plan for parks and open spaces. O’Reilly accompanied the tour.
“It was nice for me to be there and I would definitely have been there because it’s important to be there for things like this to see where we’re going,” O’Reilly said. “I need to go out with the commissioners and see how they see the parks as they are right now.”
O’Reilly can also jump right in and see what improvements are being seen at various parks and what types of programs villagers might be interested in. However, entering a newly created role can also have its challenges.
“The hardest thing is not knowing what people care about,” O’Reilly said. “We just completed our park survey and that gave us a good look at what the community is interested in, but it’s more or less a trial and error situation because you have to run a program to see if it people will like .”
Being involved in a master plan or five-year plan is nothing new to O’Reilly. He was involved in the end of Watertown and joined Olivet when they were in the middle. He comes after Poynette when they are in the early stages of their plan.
“I’ve been to all the parks, but I haven’t gone all the trails, but it’s nice to see that people really like parks,” O’Reilly said. “(The process) gives me a place to look and say that people would like to see more trails in the community.”
O’Reilly will also now relieve the Parks and Recreation Commission of overseeing the day-to-day activities of the village parks, which also has benefits.
“It’s definitely a team effort,” O’Reilly said of working with the commission. “The Commission is here to be the voice of the community. My job is really the day to day business of making sure everything works and we offer life enriching programs – whatever that might be. People always think life-enhancing programming is sports, but it’s anything. Life Enriching Programming can be a new swing at a playground because it’s broken, because for some kids that might be their favorite swing.
“Everything about parks and recreation affects someone at a different point, it just matters at what point it affects them,” he continued. “The commission gets community concerns by talking to their friends and neighbors, raising them in a meeting, and then tasking me with seeing how feasible it is to do those things. In some cases, it is looking for funding opportunities and various funding opportunities for these projects.”
One of the first things O’Reilly did was have a daily walking program upstairs in Village Hall from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. The program is designed for seniors who can hike out of the elements every day, but is open to all.
“I usually try to start with something that’s simple and easy to get people to the door. Then I talk to people and see what they like,” he said, adding that he’ll attend some early sessions and see what other programs people might like so he can create different types of programs.
“I’ve done programs like this in the past and you’d be surprised at the people who would show up and just start talking to people and the next moment they’d made a friend,” O’Reilly said.
Referring to the time he worked for the city of Juneau, he created a bag event twice a week, with interest shared by people who enjoy playing bags, among others. O’Reilly noted that without the event created, many of those in attendance might not have met.
It’s the main reason O’Reilly does what he does and why he feels his newly created role in Poynette is so important.
“I think it’s important to the community and I think it creates a greater sense of community because people will see kids playing soccer or adults playing softball or volleyball or whatever they’re doing,” O’Reilly said. “Even things that aren’t visible, like a cooking class where people can come together and meet other people with similar interests.”
Poynette’s creation of this position opens up opportunities for the villagers and those in the area to participate in activities that otherwise might not have been available.
“I think it’s beneficial (to have that position) because you have someone whose sole job is to create opportunities for the citizens, whether it’s opportunities to go out into the community and do something, or over here to the parish hall to come and do some class or walk,” O’Reilly said. “My job is to literally create community-enriching programs. So if people are wondering, what is my job here in the village, is to provide the village with whatever type of programs they think they want at this point in time.
O’Reilly has met with school district officials to ensure that the programs the village will offer will not match those offered at the three school levels. O’Reilly said there will be some overlap between the programs, but not much as the recreation side is more focused on introducing kids to different sports, with a lower activity level than most youth sports.
“Things will be similar but drastically different,” O’Reilly said. “The Rec programs will be more teaching-based, like clinics.”
It is important to O’Reilly to create different programs that are suitable for all ages because he grew up with these types of programs.
“Growing up, I was in rec programs all the time,” he said. “I’ve done soccer, baseball, whatever they offered, and I think it gives kids an opportunity to socialize outside of school with other kids their age. The same goes for adults — no one tells you how hard it is to make friends as an adult.”
Starting the job early in the five-year plan process also brings challenges, especially in that O’Reilly sees a lot of information at once while trying to settle into his new role.
“It’s a great time to come in and almost not because you’re getting all this information at once,” O’Reilly said. “You have to try – and with the help of whoever is doing the survey – to narrow it down to the things that we can actually work on over the next five years. … The parks are there for everyone to use, so it’s important to get everyone’s opinions in the city and find a happy medium.”
O’Reilly grew up in Jefferson and graduated from a Milwaukee high school in 2015. He then attended the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, graduating in 2019 with a Bachelors in Human and Health Performance with a concentration in Recreation and Leisure Studies and Parks and Recreation.
“At the time I attended Whitewater, the Parks and Recreation program was just getting started, and by the time I graduated, their program was in full swing,” O’Reilly said.
O’Reilly began his college career in business but after one semester said he decided to change majors. A careers advisor asked him what he likes to do. He replied that he liked playing sports and talking to people. The consultant suggested that he try the Parks and Recreation program.
“One of the courses on the list was Recreation 101,” O’Reilly said. “So I signed up for this class, thinking we’d just run around and play dodgeball and stuff like that.”
Instead, he got his first taste of developing recreational programs when the students in the class were assigned to design programs for a local middle school. Then the students put their plans into action and guided the children in these programs.
“After that I thought it was great and decided it was what I wanted to do,” O’Reilly said.
He began as an intern at the City of Watertown and worked there until 2019. He and his wife then relocated to Missouri as she would attend graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. O’Reilly got a job as a recreation assistant for the town of Olivet – a suburb of St. Louis. He was eventually promoted to Recreation Coordinator and then Recreation and Facilities Coordinator, where he was responsible for the overall recreation program, facility rentals, and facility maintenance.
Then the pandemic came and disrupted things — for some more than others.
“Unfortunately, while I was down there, the COVID pandemic hit and the youth sports and adult program was put on hold down there for a while,” O’Reilly said.
While the city of Olivet was in limbo, it set up several virtual programs, but when O’Reilly asked its director about a timeline for returning to some sort of normalcy, no definite answer could be given. At this point, O’Reilly reached out to friends in Wisconsin, who informed him that the programs were reopening with some restrictions and jobs were available.
Since his wife was about to graduate from high school and went to school virtually, you could move almost anywhere. They moved back to Wisconsin, and O’Reilly got a job as parks director for the city of Juneau.
“Juneau had some pre-packaged programs in place and they also had partnerships with the community, so we worked with the FFA, the garden club, the library and some other nonprofits to create some programs for the kids,” he said.
After Juneau, O’Reilly worked briefly for Neuman Pools, Inc., based in Beaver Dam. There he saw a different side of things. He was a mechanical plumber replacing things on various water devices.
“So I was the person who installed the units on the splash guards or whatever we were working on,” O’Reilly said. “In the Dells we put things for lazy rivers and things like that. Pools are a big part of recreation so I checked it out at the time to see what was going on behind the scenes.”
During his time at Neuman Pools, O’Reilly’s friends in the parks and recreation world continued to send him job descriptions they thought he would be a good fit for. A friend of his who became a park manager in Hartford brought Poynette’s job opening to O’Reilly’s attention.
“I examined Poynette and tried to figure out what they had,” O’Reilly said. “It was a brand new position and department, and I applied because I think recreational programming is important for any community of any size.”