There was a time from 2008 to 2010 that employees in the Riverside Parks and Recreation Department were not sure if they’d even have jobs come 2011. One village board threatened elimination of the department if a tax referendum wasn’t passed.

Its tax levy was slashed by half, and by 2010 a move was afoot to fold the department into public works. Eventually, the autonomous recreation board to which the department answered was dissolved in favor of an advisory commission answerable to the village board.

You wouldn’t know any of that these days. The recreation department is healthier than ever, offering more programs than ever and serving more residents than ever.

“For the first time, maybe ever, we’re operating as we should,” said Recreation Director Ron Malchiodi, who saw the turmoil firsthand and engineered the turnaround. “We just needed that support. We needed that chance.”

Ironically, the support grew out of the debate to dissolve the recreation board. Ultimately, the plan to fold the recreation department into public works was scrapped. But the most important decision made in 2010 was the village board’s reinstatement of the tax levy for recreation — at the level mandated in the law that created the recreation board in 1937.

“That lit the spark,” said Malchiodi, who has worked for the department since 2003 and was named its director in 2011.

“I always saw the potential of this department within the community,” he said. “We’re kind of the PR department for the village — working with the kids, running events. We’re the ones that build that sense of community.”

In the past two years, where the recreation department has seen its greatest growth, and where Malchiodi sees continued growth, has been with its early childhood programs. Since its inception in 2011, the department’s summer camp program has exploded. And the success of a new kindergarten enrichment program, known as Kinder Kids Club (and an associated program known as Brown Bag Buddies), has outgrown the department’s headquarters in Centennial Park.

Until 2011, the department’s summer camp program was handled by the Pav YMCA in Berwyn. While that program was successful, Malchiodi wanted to bring it in house.

“It was great, but there was no control over the product,” said Malchiodi.

According to Malchiodi, about 80 to 90 kids attended the Pav summer camps. The first year bringing the program in house, the enrollment ballooned to 180 kids. In 2013, the camp drew 280.

The summer camp program is for kids ages 3 to 13. Children between the ages of 3 and 6 are based at the recreation department’s home at 10 Pine Ave. The older kids are based out of the Scout Cabin in Indian Gardens.

Next summer, because of the enrollment trend, the recreation department has contracted with St. Mary School to use its gymnasium as a home base for the summer camp.

Malchiodi said he’s not sure exactly who will be based at St. Mary’s but said it won’t just serve as overflow. It will allow the rec department to separate older kids, who are now mixed in with kids as young as 6.

“We’ll assess that based on registration,” said Malchiodi.

The department’s Kinder Kids Club has also taken off. Though much smaller in reach than the summer camp — it’s an afternoon-only program for children ages 5 and 6 — the Kinder Kids Club has grown enough in two years that it has moved out of the department’s home and into its own classroom space at the Riverside United Methodist Church, across the street from Hauser Junior High School.

Enrollment has doubled since 2011, to 16 kids who attend two, three or five days per week from noon to 3 p.m.

“It’s basically supplementing the District 96 kindergarten curriculum,” said Malchiodi. “Most parents enjoy the learning that takes place, and it does serve a purpose for working parents.”

Meeting in a suite of rooms the rec department rents for $500 per month, kids gather round teacher Beth Allabastro for story time or work on projects at small tables scattered throughout the rooms. The classroom feel of the space lends itself to a learning setting and allows more flexibility at the Pine Avenue space.

In the spring of 2014, the recreation department is slated to buy a 20-passenger bus that will expand the reach of the Kinder Kids Club and provide a way for the department to take kids on field trips. The bus has been included in the village of Riverside’s 2014 budget, with its cost estimated at $40,000.

Having a bus will allow the department to pick up kids from any of the District 96 elementary schools — most of the kids are now drawn from Central School, which is adjacent to Hauser Junior High across the street from the church.

“We’re confident once we offer transportation, people will take that option,” said Malchiodi.

And, next school year, Malchiodi hopes to expand the Kinder Kids Club to include a morning session as well as an afternoon session. The classroom can hold up to 20 kids comfortably at one time, he said.

The growth also means that Malchiodi, for the first time since he’s been director, will supervise two full-time staffers. Stevie Michell, who runs the day camp and is a part-time Kinder Kids instructor, will be become a full-time employee who will take on a supervisory role for those programs.

In addition, the department will continue to offer more programs — in 2013 they’ve offered 208 programs, up from 166 in 2012 and about 100 in 2010 — and seek opportunities for events, like a fall concert.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” said Malchiodi.

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