A common misconception surrounding Moraine Valley Community College (MVCC) is that its campus rec center must be small since it’s a community college.
However, the 113,000-square-foot facility that opened in Palos Hills, Illinois, in 2014 takes many by surprise. “It’s much larger than most people think when they tour it,” said Mike Schneider, the director of FitRec at MVCC. “They quickly realize our fitness floor rivals most large institutions or big private clubs they may have experienced in the past.”
With a three-court gym, a four-lane pool complete with swim lessons following the Jeff Ellis Swim training program and four group fitness studios that play host to Les Mills classes, MVCC has a lot to offer both students and the local community.
Creating Something New at Moraine Valley
But that’s not always how it was. In fact, MVCC didn’t have a campus rec department for the existing fitness center in 2013. At that point, the college hired CENTERS — a management company for university recreation, fitness and wellness facilities as well as other campus centers. Schneider was given the opportunity to move from another CENTERS location — the University of New Haven — to MVCC.
Interestingly, the college wasn’t Schneider’s first chance to create a new department or be part of a facility opening. He had been involved with the 2005 renovation and expansion project at the University of Missouri. He also part of the creation of a campus rec department and opening of a rec center at New Haven.
“I love the opportunity to create something from scratch, to be able to put your stamp on something that has never existed,” said Schneider. “I just love being able to create the vision — and even mission — and getting everybody involved.”
MVCC’s FitRec has seen a lot of success since 2013. For instance, over the last four years only one employee has left to be closer to home. Schneider credited a large part of this to the depth of the bench and the resources available as part of the CENTERS enterprise, the largest campus recreation employer.
The CENTERS’ Difference
Having been in campus recreation both as a part of CENTERS and outside of it, Schneider was able to speak to the differences and similarities a CENTERS’ site has to the rest of the industry.
While FitRec and other CENTERS’ campus rec departments operate as any other rec department — in most cases reporting to the vice chancellor or vice president of Student Affairs — being part of CENTERS also affords Schneider and his team greater autonomy.
He explained CENTERS’ partnerships are built on trust and the depth of experience in the firm. This increased freedom allows them to be more innovative, cost-effective and adaptable. For example, Schneider proposed a million dollar buildout of their KidRec center to the college. The college recognized the proposal for the buildout and trusted the team would meet on the deliverables.
In addition, being part of CENTERS gives each college or university team access to one another, allowing them to work in a smaller and tighter-knit group of professionals.
EXTRA CREDIT: An in-depth look at CENTERS.
“What I appreciate about our company is our footprint in different parts of the country, but we are well connected through our different platforms of professional development groups,” said Alejandro Herrera, the former assistant director of Operations and Guest Services at MVCC, and a professional who has also spent time both within and outside of CENTERS. “For example, I am currently serving on our Student Development, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion and Customer Service group with my awesome colleagues — shout out to Seneca Wilson and Veronica Tantoco — to aid in formalizing training documents that will be utilized across all CENTERS’ sites that provides consistency in our hiring and training.”
Finally, Schneider said you also can move up, go to other CENTERS’ sites or even move to the corporate side. “There’s the ability to get to do your job better or to learn new skills for professional development,” he said. “To me, those are the key differences I find attractive with CENTERS.”
But the unique parts of campus recreation at MVCC don’t stop at being run by CENTERS. They also exist with MVCC being a community college.
Running a Community College at Moraine Valley
For starters, Schneider said they run more like a commuter college with about 25% of students using the support services. So, they must get creative. “What we were able to do I think is cool and unique here is we use our community in a way to subsidize the different programs we can provide for the students,” he said.
One of those programs is the community college’s youth camps and services. Schneider said it started with babysitting in a 500-square-foot room. Since then, it’s expanded to 9,000 square feet of dedicated space.
“The need for youth programming was evident pretty early on with the opening of our facility,” said Jana Terborg, the assistant director of Fitness Programs.
In addition to space, Schneider said the program reached a new level when a staff member expressed interest in running the youth programming. As such, Angela Caringella, the assistant director of Youth Programs and Student Development, took it over and helped it grow.
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KidRec offers daycare seven days a week, as well as youth camps during summer, winter and spring breaks. In 2021, Caringella said they launched another program for older children ages 8 to 13. The idea is to introduce them to the fitness floor, usually off limits to kids until they turn 14.
As a 12-week program that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays, children are shown how to use cardio machines and weight equipment safely. Plus, the program teaches them about healthy lifestyle choices. Activities cover topics such as cardiovascular exercise, strength equipment orientation and making exercise fun.
“This was one of the most popular activities during camp and the older group felt like they had more of a sense of belonging,” said Caringella. “It was a great way to make exercise fun and introduce a premium program led by our youth personal trainers.”
Terborg said the initial pilot of the program was a success which is why they’ve continued it. “Our goal is to give them all the tools they need to navigate the fitness floor with knowledge and confidence on their own when they are old enough to do so,” she explained.
Another unique youth program is MVCC’s X-Rooms. They offer Exergame interactive fitness and gaming products such as the TWall and the iWall. In addition, there are exercise bikes that power Xboxes.
Schneider said Exergame helped them design the space, and they’ve found such success that MVCC has become a showcase facility. Services in the space include:
- Childcare drop-off hours with staff supervision and interaction.
- Time for campers to use the space during camp programs.
- Availability for birthday party rentals.
“The X-Rooms have been a great way to connect with children and community members,” said Caringella. “Since the space is so unique, a lot of guests come to tour the space either from hearing about it by word of mouth or attending a friend/family member’s rental.”
In fact, youth camps are one of FitRec’s biggest revenue generators. And it never would have been able to grow to what it is if a dedicated staff member hadn’t been shifted to oversee it.
How to Support Staff Well
As such, supporting staff is key in Schneider’s book. He has come to understand listening to and learning what people want and need in order to be successful is vital to the individual and overall team accomplishment. “I believe you have to create the environment in which they have the freedom to become successful,” he said. “It’s creating that culture, creating that environment, showing them you care. That’s huge.”
However, the job is never done as Schneider pointed out. He shared like facilities require maintenance, departments require continuous leadership, empathy and vision.
So while MVCC has its own successes and challenges unique to a community college, Schneider has the same mentality of many in the industry: never settle. As CENTERS states, better is better, which is what MVCC’s FitRec is striving for daily.
“While COVID-19 may have slowed things down, I hope professionals in the industry are eager to accept the current challenges that are here now and waiting to be met,” shared Schneider. “Adventure awaits.”