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Alumni and Friends

Alumni Form Nonprofit Dedicated to Supporting Parks, Recreation, Open Spaces and the Arts

group poses for photo

An advocacy organization formed by students and alumni from NC State’s College of Natural Resources is helping residents in Clayton, Smithfield and other communities across Johnston County live their best lives by expanding recreational opportunities.

“Most of us live in Johnston County and many of us grew up here — we see what it’s like to live in a place where there is access to recreational opportunities and where there is not,” said Derrick Applewhite Jr., a founding member of Friends of Johnston County Parks and 2018 Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management alumnus. “We are all fully aware that communities that have these sorts of opportunities, facilities and programs are much better off, not only in terms of health and happiness but in dollars and cents.”

Friends of Johnston County Parks was formed in October 2020 when Dave Herpy, NC 4-H camping specialist with NC State Extension, organized the group’s first official meeting at a Clayton coffee shop. Herpy elicited support from Applewhite Jr., and others, who had been involved in a former grassroots effort to establish a parks and recreation special tax district in Johnston County.

While the previous effort proved unsuccessful, the need for parks, trails and other recreational opportunities in Johnston County remained. The county has 11 municipalities, all of which offer parks and recreation services to their citizens. But until recently, the county didn’t have a centralized program to coordinate these services broadly and reach residents in unincorporated areas, according to Applewhite Jr.

Friends of Johnston County Parks was originally envisioned as an advisory group but a need existed for something bigger, something that was brought up by Adrian O’Neal, a 1993 alumnus of the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management program. In early conversations between O’Neal, who now serves as the Johnston County Parks and Open Space coordinator, and Herpy, it became clear that a Friends group would serve the county best.

“By essentially operating as an advocacy group, we can get folks involved and organized from the bottom up to support parks and recreation efforts in Johnston County,” Applewhite Jr. said. “We’re behind compared to our neighbors to the northwest and southeast, they have established programs, but Johnston County’s future is bright.”

Since forming the group, Applewhite Jr. and other members have hosted several meetings, two #OptOutsideJoCo events, and an Earth Day county-wide clean-up. For the countywide clean-up, the group partnered with N.C. Department of Transportation’s litter sweep program and received 200 volunteers from across the county. Meanwhile, #OptOutsideJoCo was created as a local version of REI’s popular #OptOutside movement, where folks are invited to share pictures of themselves enjoying the outdoors during the Black Friday weekend. 

“Johnston County has great parks and trails to offer, and we want people to see the impact that recreation has on the community,” said Sarah Bunn, one of the group’s founding members and a graduate student in the Parks, Recreation, Tourism and Sport Management program. “The Friends group provides an opportunity for residents and visitors to get involved in the community and helps foster an attachment to Johnston County. It provides opportunities for families to get outside, get active and give back.”

Pursuing Lifelong Passions 

Passionate about parks and recreation only begins to describe the devotion of the group’s members, who each found their calling at NC State. 

“I grew up playing sports, and I’ve always wanted to work with people,” Bunn said. “I realized my passion for recreation while working as a camp counselor in high school but didn’t realize that I could make it a career.”

Bunn may have left the parks and recreation field for sales and marketing, but she felt it calling her back after starting a family of her own. She strived to find a way to support the community and joined Friends of Johnston County Parks one month after it was formed. She plans to continue to work with the group after graduation and hopes to pursue a career in municipal parks and recreation.

As for Applewhite Jr., he pursued an opportunity after graduation to work as a graduate assistant in Ohio State University’s Department of Recreational Sports. But upon graduation, he returned to North Carolina to work for the Town of Garner before recently transitioning to the government affairs division of the North Carolina League of Municipalities. He never forgot his passion for parks and recreation, however.

“I think the pandemic, among all the terrible things we’ve seen from it, has shown us how important it is for the opportunity to get outside and play,” Applewhite Jr. said. “From hiking a local trail to going on a bike ride, I don’t think most people understood how essential many of these opportunities were until everything else was shut down and those were the only options that they had.”

Austin Cross, one of the group’s founding members and a senior in the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management program, felt inspiration strike while he was traveling with his wife for two years, visiting national parks along the way. “Through that, I was talking to rangers and living out west for a couple of years, which gave me insight into an unconscious inspiration I had because I was always outside when I was a kid.”

Cross has since been studying at NC State with a concentration in natural resource and recreation management and found an internship with Johnston County Parks and Open Space. That internship turned into his current job as the county’s park planner, and he plans to continue working with the organization as long as he can, with plans to eventually go to graduate school. 

Applying Classroom Lessons

With so many students and alumni from the College of Natural Resources in the group, you would think it was planned. But it’s mostly coincidental, according to Applewhite Jr. “It shows that people who go through the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management program are seriously committed, not only in their professional careers but in their free time,” he said. “I think the College of Natural Resources generated a sense of responsibility, volunteerism and passion for parks and recreation in our communities, and how vital it is.”

Members have been bringing the wisdom from their parks and recreation courses into helping make the group serve as a beacon for enjoying the arts, recreation and parks in the county. In PRT 507, Bunn created a strategic marketing plan for the group thanks to the work of her and her classmate, Madison Bell Barry. Bunn also created a comprehensive risk management plan for the group in PRT 508 and an ArcGIS story map in PRT 505. And thanks to PRT 504, Bunn is currently analyzing data collected from the group’s Earth Day event to ensure that the group mindfully recruits a diverse volunteer base.

Cross serves as the brains behind the group’s strategic planning. He is currently reviewing master plans and strategic planning around ways to efficiently and effectively increase recreational opportunities throughout Johnston County, in addition to working to gain the public’s support. He credits PRT 380, a survey course, for helping him in these endeavors. 

“The aim is to get people outdoors and get them in nature because there are so many health benefits, especially for people who are stuck indoors because of work or because they don’t want to go outside,” Cross said. “By helping to get that message out there, I think I’m helping not only my community but also helping new residents and the other communities that may not have as much access to parks.”

Planning for the Future

The group is currently working toward acquiring a 501(c)3 status that will enable it to officially become a nonprofit organization that can garner funding to allow members to further advocate for Johnston County parks, recreation and the arts. An application will be submitted in the coming months, and the hope is to obtain nonprofit status sometime in 2022.

More community outreach events are also on the horizon for the group. The first event of 2022 will be #FirstWeekendJoCo, which will be similar to the #OptOutside movement and first-day hikes, where the group will invite residents and visitors to celebrate the new year by getting active outdoors. In the spring, the group hopes to work with community partners to host their first county-wide BioBlitz event. The group will also host another Earth Day cleanup event, while also working to launch an Adopt-a-Greenway program. The latter will originate in the town of Smithfield as a Boy Scouts project, with the hopes of expanding the program throughout Johnston County.

During the group’s first couple of months, O’Neal talked about his vision for the group and the future of trails in Johnston County. “In 50 years, no matter where you are in the county, you should be able to hop on a trail and get to any other part of the county while staying on the trails,” Applewhite Jr. paraphrased. “We have the opportunity, with the East Coast Greenway that slices through Johnston County and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that crosses the other direction across the county, to be the trails hub of the Triangle.”

Friends of Johnston County Parks is a volunteer coalition advocating in support of parks, open space, the arts, and recreational opportunities on behalf of all Johnston County citizens and visitors. Anyone, regardless of location, who has an interest in parks and recreation and becoming a part of Friends of Johnston County Parks, can reach out to the group via email at friendsofjohnstoncountyparks@gmail.com or through their website.