Over the past year, Bent County, a rural community in southeastern Colorado, has been working to encourage its citizens to be physically active in their own community and support local businesses, while striving to appeal to potential visitors and residents. With a dispersed population, only 55% of the population in the county has adequate access to locations for physical activity according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation County Health Rankings.

The county recognized an opportunity to improve access to physical activity and is leveraging LiveWell Colorado’s $100,000 investment in 2014 to support recreation initiatives already available and improve the local recreation center. This past June, a full-time recreation coordinator was hired by the county to ensure continuity of programming.’

af848ef2b088653f7df5eb95560aab0a“Previously, recreation leagues existed but lacked consistency from year to year due to turnover,” says Rourke Sisson, LiveWell Bent County Recreation Coordinator.

Staff turnover and irregularity in the availability of recreation leagues discouraged residents from participating, or led families to join recreation leagues outside Bent County. Many residents drove more than 20 miles away to neighboring communities such as Lamar and La Junta to participate in recreation leagues and as a result, spend money on participation fees, shopping, dining and lodging outside of their community.

Since hiring Sisson in June to coordinate the city’s recreation leagues, enrollment in youth baseball and softball have gone up, and trends are expected to continue with football and volleyball into the fall. A first-time free girls’ volleyball clinic was held last week, with 44 athletes in attendance.

“People are more willing to sign up to participate in a league or volunteer at a tournament when they can see that it is organized and well-run,” Sisson explains.

In addition to adding new leagues and classes, such as Zumba, the city hosted a state baseball tournament this summer for 11 year olds for the first time that brought teams from across Colorado to the community, boosting recognition and the economy of the county. Recruiting league participants through promotion at free sports clinics, fliers and word of mouth has helped Sisson engage with the community and establish relationships that keep people invested in the success of the leagues.

“It has been a true community effort,” Sisson says. “This work went from individuals trying to organize separate activities to a larger and more invested group.”

Encouraging residents to get involved in local recreation leagues has built up a growing sense of ownership and pride in the community. “If we represent the community well and continue to be an outstanding destination for sports leagues and tournaments, people will continue to come back,” Sisson explains.