If you ask Walter Lenckos, superintendent of Porter County Parks and Recreation, about his job, he will tell you he's in the quality of life business.
"It's my job to provide fun for the people of Porter County," he said.
As superintendent, Lenckos heads a relatively small, seven-person department that nonetheless does a terrific job.
"We're lucky here in Porter County. We may not be spoiled with tons of money, but we have a great staff that are passionate about what they do. We've got a volunteer board that's great—I'm often surprised at the amount of work they do for zero dollars—and we have a host of elected officials that care about making Porter County a great place to live. We've also got tons of volunteers that help out with programs all over," Lenckos stated.
As much as he loves his job now, this wasn't what Illinois-native Lenckos always wanted to do.
"I'm actually a failed writer," Lenckos said, "I attended DePauw University and I wanted to be the next Don DeLillo. When that went miserably, I ended up in educational publishing working on exams for school corporations."
It's a sign of how happy he is with where he's ended up that he can speak so frankly about earlier dreams that didn't pan out. But how did he start on the path that led him from his office job to here?
"I was on a camping trip with a friend. We were at Paintbrush Canyon in Wyoming and my friend woke up and looked outside at the sunrise, the wilderness and nearby stream and realized he wasn't happy with where his life was," Lenckos said. "After that, he changed everything about his life. It was then that I really saw the powerful things in the outdoors that can have that kind of an impact on a person."
His friend's realization led to his own realization that he wanted to be a part of that power, rather than spending his time in an office working on exams. Lenckos went back to school to earn a Masters in Recreation Administration from Aurora University and then put it to use, working at two YMCAs in Wisconsin. From there, he and his wife Stephanie moved to Baltimore, MD where Lenckos became the program director for Outward Bound, the world's largest provider of experiential programs that use outdoor adventures to build confidence and leadership skills.
"In 2010 while we were in Baltimore, we learned that my wife was pregnant with twin girls. We knew they would be a handful, so we started looking to move closer to home in the Midwest. The park board was looking to hire a new superintendent and they had made the decision not to advertise outside the area because they initially wanted someone local. My aunt saw the listing and cut it out of the paper and put it in an envelope and sent it to us. I was hired a week before the girls were born," Lenckos said.
Lenckos couldn't be happier that the twins, Sierra and Lynette, who will turn four in April, get to grow up here.
"We live on Sunset Hill Farm County Park, so my girls' backyard is 230 acres of public park," he said. "They love hiking and exploring, and the joy they get from being outside serves as an example of everything I hope to bring to all the kids in Porter County with the Parks Department."
With all the good fortune he and his family have had, Lenckos says he believes in coincidence less and less as the years go on. It isn't by chance that Lenckos has been able to grow good things in Porter County. It's taken hard work, a new mindset, and a reaffirmation that there is a direct correlation between the work he and his staff do and the smiles on people's faces.
"Four years ago, this wasn't really a fun place to work. When I came in I reminded the board that it should be fun, that everyone working in this department should be passionate about what they do because the people of Porter County trust us with their valuable leisure time.
"There's also been a realization in the industry that parks and recreation needs to be experiential," Lenckos continued. "You can no longer assume that a path with some trees around it is enough. Now, we work to offer experiences, educational moments, and distinct memories so people can go out into nature and relate it to their daily lives,"
Lenckos says there are a number of cool new projects in store for 2014.
"We've acquired 46 acres beside an existing property in Pine Township called Brincka-Cross Gardens," Lenckos said. "With State funding, we're going to put 1.5 miles of trails into the park. We also just closed on 63.5 acres in Pleasant Township, and that's going to be our first foray into active sports fields—soccer fields, etc. Meanwhile, many of our programs have waiting lists and we have to turn people away, so we're running our 'Raise the Barn' campaign to raise the funds to build a new administration center so we can offer more to all the people that want to take part."
When he's not organizing new programs for Porter County, Lenckos says that he and his wife enjoy cooking, gardening, taking care of their chickens, and have recently gotten into home brewing
."This year, I'd like to get back into writing too. I still read a lot, and I'd like to try blogging or something along those lines. Something where I can talk with people about the importance of the natural world," Lenckos said.
For more information about what Lenckos is cooking up at Porter County Parks and Recreation, visit www.portercountyparks.org.