I grew up in Reston with Lake Fairfax as my backyard. That’s where I fell in love with nature and had the adventures that lead me to become an ecologist. Fairfax County had such a significant influence on who I am that I was thrilled when I was chosen last year as the new Executive Director of Fairfax County Park Authority (FCPA). Not many people in my profession have the opportunity to lead, preserve, and enhance their childhood park system and I feel very honored to have been given this opportunity.
When I started in this job last September – wow, I can’t believe it’s been a year already – one of the first things I did was commit to visiting all 420 parks within my first year – that’s 420 parks on nearly 24,000 acres of parkland – quite a challenge, but I do love a challenge!
Why did I do this? I needed to see our parks to be their champion, but I also needed to see the surrounding neighborhoods. Parks in Franconia shouldn’t look exactly like parks in Vienna. Parks should reflect the community they serve and different neighborhoods may value different ways to recreate. To get to know this park system and really start to understand the needs of our residents, I needed to see them – all of them, the good, the bad, and …… quite honestly, the Frying Pan Park baby pigs, as much as possible.
I’ve seen what I thought was impossible: A phenomenal park system with some of the best amenities any system in the Country has to offer, but also with parks that are bursting with potential waiting to be imagined. The trip was fantastic. I saw the many parks that we own and manage. I met people who work at the parks and who visit the parks. I saw its strengths and its weaknesses, I noted places that needed attention and care and investment, and I was wowed by both our facilities and our wonderful staff on many occasions.
I’ve reached the 400-park mark and am counting down the last 20 visits, and I think I’ve saved the best for last! I wanted to ask each member of the Board of Supervisors to pick of their favorite parks to show me what they love about it and what are some needs they have identified. We’ll be highlighting those visits on our facebook page in the coming weeks.
I will be finishing my tour where my career started, at Lake Fairfax Park on September 24, 2022 which is also National Public Lands Day. I couldn’t think of a more fitting place or day to end such a thoroughly fulfilling adventure. We will celebrate both my tour and National Public Lands Day by gathering with volunteers and local officials to plant trees, break bread and celebrating our remarkable park system. If you would like join us, you can register below.
The past year has been a learning experience but it’s just the start of a much bigger effort to ensure that every resident can experience all the FCPA has to offer, regardless of where they live, or their ability to pay. My definition of racial equity in park is “Where race and income does not predict the quantity and quality of parks in a specific area and Rec Centers and programs are affordable for all residents.” Parks and recreation centers are such a vital part of the lives of so many of our residents and I hope you can take some time for yourself and your family to get to one of our 420 parks soon. Which is your favorite?
Visit online and learn about your park system and what it has to offer. Share your thoughts with us via firstname.lastname@example.org or speak to your Park Authority Board member about your vision for the future. You can reach them via Parkmail as well or speak at an upcoming Park Board meeting. It’s all online or you can reach us via phone during regular business hours at 703-324-8700. Thank you for sharing your time with me today.
Jai Cole is the Executive Director of the Fairfax County Park Authority. Cole grew up in Fairfax County, residing in Reston for 25 years. She attended South Lakes High School where she played youth softball, basketball and field hockey. She then went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in biology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro where she played Division I basketball. She brings more than two decades of experience initiating and delivering sustained results and effective change for CAPRA-accredited and NRPA Gold Medal award-winning parks and recreation agencies.