I’m a kid at heart. Growing up in Fairfax County with Lake Fairfax Park as my backyard led to wonderful discoveries that eventually brought me to my current role as an ecologist and Executive Director of the Fairfax County Park Authority. I can still recall the adventures and the mischief I could get into – including a cherry bomb that helped educate me on what lived in the streams at Lake Fairfax – and ultimately made me fall in love with nature.
In fact, my childhood visits to parks and sites throughout our wonderful park system provided the foundation upon which many important parts of my life experience occurred. The first field trip I can remember in elementary school was to Colvin Run Mill. The basketball courts at Nottoway Park were legendary. At 14, I thought I could play – until I was justifiably humbled on those courts which made me fall in love with basketball.
Fairfax County had such a significant influence on who I am that I was thrilled when I was chosen as the 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. I feel very honored to have been given this opportunity.
FCPA is a large, diverse nearly-24,000 acre system with 420 parks spread across a 400-square-mile County with 1.2 million residents. We have a staff contingent of 1,200 employees augmented by approximately 2,500 seasonal employees during the summer. Phew. So where do I begin?
When I started in this job in September 2021, one of the first things I did was commit to visiting all 420 parks within my first year. Why? First, as noted above, I’m an ecologist and one of the things that was hammered into me early in my career is that you can’t talk about what you haven’t seen. Secondly, one of my primary goals is to ensure we create a park system where the predominant race and income of an area does not predetermine the quality and quantity of parks in that area and where the parks reflect and serve the surrounding community. Parks in Annandale shouldn’t look exactly like parks in Reston. Those are different communities whose residents 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.
So that’s what I’m doing, I’m visiting each and every park before my first year is over (although I assure you that this isn’t all that I’m doing). Crazy? Maybe, but the crazier it sounds, the more it makes you realize just how vast our park system is in Fairfax County to make the undertaking so remarkable. I am learning so much about our park system, the county and almost every neighborhood within it. I plan on sharing some of my thoughts along the way but I have already learned one very important thing on this journey. Every time I pass kids playing basketball or baseball, stopped for runners on the Gerry Connolly Cross County Trail, visited one of our phenomenal Rec Centers or saw families on our playgrounds, it confirmed that our parks and recreation facilities play a critical role in improving health outcomes. Our parks, trails and open spaces provide free opportunities for vigorous physical activity and our park system is one of the gems of Fairfax County.
I’ve visited 210 parks in the last five months. That means I’m currently halfway through my journey! Over the next several months, you can travel with me virtually as I share my adventures on the Park Authority’s Facebook page. You can find photos from my visits in the Flickr album that we will continue to update. I welcome your comments and observations. I plan to complete my tour on National Public Lands Day, Sep. 24, 2022, where it all began for me: at Lake Fairfax Park. Stay tuned for more details!
I’m looking forward to the next 210 parks. If you see me around your neighborhood, ask me if I’m lost (because I probably am) and point me in the direction of a park – any park – and please join me!
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.