OXFORD, Miss. – It started as a simple question from a concerned public worker. “How can the city of Hernando best provide services to its citizens?” The rapidly growing north Mississippi city needed answers quickly and got an immediate response in the form of a comprehensive citizen survey provided free by the University of Mississippi’s Department of Health, Exercise Science, and Recreation Management. Anna Pechenik, who oversaw the survey, said she jumped at the opportunity to help Hernando Parks and Recreation understand its constituency.
“Last November, we received an email from Dewayne Williams, director of parks and recreation. He had a bucket list of projects they wanted to undertake, but didn’t know where to start,” said Pechenik, a graduate instructor in HESRM. Within a month, Pechenik and her adviser, Kim Beason, associate professor and director of UM’s park and recreation management program, met with Williams and Melissa Zizmann, assistant parks director. The four decided the relatively new Hernando recreation department, formed in 2005, needed to survey park users. Pechenik and Williams began creating a survey that could address questions and aspirations of the growing community. The group also opened communications with Mayor Chip Johnson and the city’s Board of Aldermen. “I quickly got excited about this project and the survey turned into my side job,” Pechenik said. A $2,000 research assistantship grant from the UM Graduate School funded the project and allowed Pechenik to work on the survey full-time over the summer. With Beason’s help, she eventually came up with 29 questions for park users. Sample questions included: “How often are citizens using their current facilities?” “Which programs do citizens view as essential?” and “Under what circumstances would they support a tax increase to fund new offerings?” The questionnaire went live in July. Williams and Zizmann organized advertising, public relations and local announcements to encourage citizens to complete the survey online or in its printed form. By Sept. 1, nearly 600 citizens completed the questionnaire. “We got a bigger response than we expected,” Pechenik said. “We received 565 useful surveys in two months. It’s an outstanding sample.” Pechenik and five other HESRM graduate students began analyzing the results of the survey. They recently presented their findings, “2011 Hernando Parks Citizen Survey,” to the mayor and Board of Aldermen. The results showed Hernando park facilities users overwhelming agreed that “parks are a vital part of the community” and “play an important role in their family.” What’s more, park users want to see a pool or aquatics center, a fitness center, an outdoor sports complex and more paved or natural walking trails in the future. “We wanted to hear what people in the community desired, and we got exactly that,” Williams said. “This will be our template for what to spend the public’s money on.” Because the survey will remain the joint property of the city of Hernando and the university, UM students get the continued benefit of studying the survey results. “This was a real service learning project,” Pechenik said. “To get out of the classroom and help a community was awesome.” Beason said it is the perfect example of education meeting vocation. “Most people think leisure time is not important, but when you get a chance to ask, the responses tell the tale,” Beason said. “Parks and recreation add to the quality of life for citizens. It’s like that in any city in Mississippi, and it’s great that our students got this chance to see what this university can offer the state.” Pechenik is also looking forward to the next project. “We will be working with the city of Olive Branch, and soon we will be helping Oxford on their survey to see what people want in recreation,” Beason said. Bubba Robinson, deputy director of Oxford Park Commission, said partnering with Ole Miss is an example of best practices. “It is always important to get public input on what they want in parks and recreation,” Robinson said. “It’s how bigger projects get done, like our skate park. It shows what’s feasible and what’s not. These types of surveys can cost thousands of dollars, but Ole Miss makes it happen.” Robinson said. For more information on the Department of Health, Exercise Science, and Recreation Management, go to http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/hesrm/.