In 1965 the St. Louis Gateway Arch was constructed as a memorial to celebrate the accomplishments of the early pioneers who led the westward expansion. The 630-foot, stainless steel monument has been referred to as the “Gateway to the West,” symbolizing new opportunity and advancement. Ten miles northwest is the University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL) Recreation and Wellness Center. While the facility might not receive the same national recognition as the famous Gateway Arch, the similarities between the two are not to be overlooked.
With its unique design, the Recreation and Wellness Center serves as a reminder of the past and a beacon of the future. “The students pushed the design to be a connection from the past to the future, which is why there is a complement of brick and the aluminum paneling on the outside,” said Yvette Kell, the director of recreation at the University of Missouri St. Louis. “It really shows that progression of the brick, which is traditional for buildings on campus, to the aluminum, which is showing what is going to be happening in the future and how we are moving forward.”
The facility, which opened in the fall of 2015, is a new feature for students. Prior to its construction, recreation was housed in the athletic complex. “It was a shared facility and recreation really got the short end of the stick,” explained Kell. “They weren’t really provided the resources necessary to do everything they needed. It constricted a lot of the things they could do.”
Now, with the avant-garde Recreation and Wellness Center, students have a resource completely dedicated to their heath and wellness needs. “UMSL has worked hard to get this building up and running,” added Kell. “This process was started by the students, pushed for by the students, and now the students are reaping the rewards of their determination to make the campus a better place for everyone. I believe that deserves a spotlight on what they have accomplished.”
According to Secily Shambaugh, the assistant director of fitness and wellness, this opportunity to provide a healthy outlet for the campus community is precisely what gets her excited to come to work everyday. “I always say my job keeps me young because I am around all of these students who are excited to learn and they are here because they want to be,” she said. “College is something they choose to do to better themselves, and I love that the rec center helps them do that. Exercise and fitness in general makes them happier and I think that is the great part about the job.”
Within the new facility, students have an endless variety of activities to choose from. With a climbing and bouldering wall, a plethora of fitness equipment, two wood courts, a multi-purpose activity court, four group fitness studios, a natatorium featuring lap lanes, a zip line, climbing wall, diving board, vortex, volleyball, basketball and a whirlpool, there is truly something for everyone.
“Since I am in the fitness department, my favorite features are the group fitness studios,” explained Shambaugh. “Studio four is huge and has a lot of natural light. Then I also like studio one because of the hanging bags that are already attached so our building managers do not have to take them up and down. Then finally I love the fitness floor. There is a ton of space so you can do a lot of functional activities as well as your standard weight lifting and all of that.”
While the end product is spectacular, constructing a new facility from the ground up is no easy task. Kell was brought on just as the Recreation and Wellness Center was nearing completion and was tasked with the job of hiring the entire team of professional staff. “I came on a year ago and the longest anyone else has been here is about nine months,” she said. “Bringing that team together and having everyone get on board so quickly has been the biggest challenge. But I haven’t seen a team mesh together that quickly in my career and it has been awesome to be a part of that.”
Emily Davidson, the assistant director of marketing and membership, agreed opening the new facility was a whirlwind experience. “I arrived on site in April and hit the ground running,” said Davidson. “We hired more than 100 student employees and six more professional staff after I joined and had everyone here and trained for our opening on July 28th. Not only were we making decisions about the facility, membership, programs, policies and procedures, we were also creating the culture of our department. The process was exciting and such a learning experience.”
Luckily, this was not Kell’s first rodeo; in fact, it was the fourth facility she has helped open. Her first professional position in the industry was at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater as a coordinator of fitness and aquatics. She moved on to the University of Nevada Las Vegas where she served as the assistant director for facility operations, helping to build and open its new recreation facility in 2008. After taking a year off to teach English in Korea, she took on the role of director of recreation at Morehead State University, where once again she assisted in opening a new facility.
“I have always been in recreation,” explained Kell. “It just fits with my personality. I like to have fun, go out and be part of a team environment, so recreation really provided that for me. Collegiate recreation gave me a home, where my skills could be utilized and I was able to meet so many amazing people that I never wanted to leave. All of my experience at my previous institutions really created a wonderful base of information for me and provided me with tools to be successful in my current role.”
Since the University of Missouri St. Louis is a commuter school, opening the Recreation and Wellness Center presented unique challenges. “Here the culture is very much come to campus, take classes and leave,” said Kell. “We are trying to keep them on campus. I know we are struggling with that, but the students who use the facility are starting to bring friends and we are starting to see a pick up. This is the first time I have seen a new facility open and we are pressing to get students in here, but I know the students who have been, are super impressed and love it.”
But with a talented team of professionals on her side, Kell remains hopeful the Recreation and Wellness Center will blossom. In fact, one lesson that Kell has gleaned over the years is the crucial value of teamwork.
“I believe none of us can do it alone and it is important to have a strong team to accomplish things,” said Kell. “I believe in the team and I know that I am just a piece of the overall puzzle. It is my job to make sure the puzzle stays together. The best piece of advice I can give is that we can’t do it alone. And above all else, have fun. We are in the business of helping people lead healthier lives, which means we need to model that behavior.”
Whether it is team-building exercises like escaping zombies, having a fun atmosphere in team meetings or taking time to catch up with each other throughout the day, the entire department strives to develop a positive and open work environment. “Our professional staff focuses on having fun while doing hard work,” said Davidson. “When starting a new department, there are things that work and things that don’t throughout the process. This department is very open to having those conversations and working toward the best solutions.”
While this sense of camaraderie is essential within any department, according to Kell it is also what makes the recreation industry as a whole so unique. “Nobody goes it alone. That to me is what makes recreation so awesome - we have that relationship within the department, but we also have that relationship within the industry. I know that I can call any of my colleagues at any other university and know that I am able to bounce ideas off of them.”
Now that the Recreation and Wellness center is open for business, Kell can focus on the future. She is optimistic that in the next few years, the department will continue to make great strides in engaging students. “I see there being more people staying on campus after they go to class,” added Kell. “We will start to see more people in here and we will start seeing more energy, which is awesome. From our standpoint, I think we will grow and be able to settle into the building and help be a part of making those small changes to develop a healthy and safe environment for all of the students, faculty and staff and the community.”
Photos by Heather Hartmann