Kara Kish’s passion for public management began with childhood experiences in parks and recreation activities.
Growing up in Mentor, Ohio, near Cleveland, Kish participated in summer camps and a municipal swim team, and served as a lifeguard. She discovered there were collegiate programs designed for careers in overseeing public land, and chose to attend Indiana State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in recreation and sport management, with a concentration in community recreation.
“When I found that, I was just like, that’s where my heart is,” said Kish, now superintendent of the Vigo County Parks and Recreation Department. “That’s where my passions are.”
Following stints in parks systems in Fishers and Brownsburg, Kish accepted the job of assistant superintendent of Vigo County’s parks in 2009, becoming superintendent in 2013.
Along the way, she’s earned numerous awards and honors from state and national park and recreation groups, and is “pleased and honored” to add to those her latest recognition, the 12 Under 40 award.
“I know, personally, I’m very proud of my accomplishments, and so this is a recognition from my community that says they’re proud of my accomplishments, too,” Kish told the Tribune-Star recently, sitting in her office at the county annex.
Stephanie Pence, course manager for Police Technical and owner of Hallie Hound Barkery, nominated Kish for the designation. Pence, herself, is a 12 Under 40 honoree.
Kish, 32, one of only three certified park and recreation executives in Indiana, received the Robert W. Crawford National Young Professional Award in 2011. The National Recreation and Park Association gives that award to one young professional annually. She considers that award the biggest accomplishment of her career.
The national association also recognized Kish with a 2010 young professional fellowship. She also received a 2012 young professional externship with the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration and a 2009 outstanding program award from the Indiana Park and Recreation Association.
Kish has also served on several committees and boards in her career, and currently represents her department on Wabash Valley Riverscape’s board. Many of the developments as part of that vision, including Wabashiki Fish & Wildlife Area, have taken place on county park land.
“So there’s a perfect tie between my role as a board member on that organization and my role as superintendent here,” she said.
The recent dedicated of Dewey Point at Wabashiki provides an entry point to expanded outdoor recreational opportunities.
“What Dewey Point offers is a central location for people to experience the Wabashiki trail,” she said, adding that seven miles of trail are currently open with intentions of adding five more. “And it includes all the amenities that serve a recreational experience.”
Kish also has helped with the development of Griffin Bike Park, now under construction in the Fowler Park wilderness area, just east of the main park. The facility, named for local fallen soldier Sgt. Dale Griffin, is the department’s first venture into “active recreation,” she said. That means it’s being designed for a specific recreational use, unlike the other park and recreation facilities that are multipurpose.
Kish already had her eye on the 300 acres of land adjacent to Fowler Park, but didn’t have the staff time, expertise or financing to develop the wilderness area. Then Gene Griffin, Dale’s father, introduced himself at a Wabashiki event.
Griffin told Kish about his family’s interest in developing a bike park at that southern Vigo County location.
“And I said, ‘Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, we need to talk,” she recalled.
The county expects the bike park to bring about $2 million to the local economy annually. Eight miles of the 20-mile trail are complete and organizers hope to finish the entire project by September 2016.
Friends of Griffin Bike Park, which is under the umbrella of the parks and recreation department, is charged with manning and programming the park.
Dale’s mother, Dona Griffin, said Kish played a crucial role in bringing the park to fruition.
“I’m not sure if it was without her, it ever would have got off the ground,” said Griffin, a member of the county parks and recreation board. “It’s really been a pleasure to get to know someone that, as young as Kara is, to have such vision for the growth of the parks department, and then also our community.”
Kish has no intention of resting on her laurels ... or resting — period. She’s already planning “significant” improvements to county parks, including roads, new restrooms and playgrounds and new signage. She also wants to expand program offerings beyond nature-based activities, and open the former Pfizer property to the public for a trail system and dog park.
“I choose to be in this department and see this department grow and thrive, and I have a wonderful support system right now that is allowing me to carry out the vision for the parks department,” she said.