Bristol Rec. leader Darla Senecal is moving on

BRISTOL — For the past 17 years, Darla Senecal has maintained a simple, yet successful, formula for shepherding Bristol’s ever-evolving slate of recreation department programs: Keep asking people what they want for activities, keep offerings as affordable as possible, and be available to trouble-shoot any problems that arise.
It’s a script that Senecal — a diminutive, ginger-haired powerhouse — has executed faithfully with a smile that seemingly never leaves her face, even while fulfilling some of the less glorious tasks in her ample job description, such as replacing a Holley Hall fuse or stapling events posters onto the makeshift town hall sandwich board.
While she’s adored her job, Senecal believes it’s time for someone else to lend their energy and vision as Bristol’s unofficial director of fun. She’s stepping down as recreation director at the end of this month to become regional coordinator for the Building Bright Futures program in Addison and Rutland counties.
“This job has changed, and it’s going to change,” Senecal said of the recreation post. “Trends come and go in recreation and the needs of your community change as your population ages. It’s always going to change. I feel like I have brought the department forward, and now is the right time for me to let the next person come and take the next steps. I’m excited about the work that I’ve done and I’m excited about the work I’m going to do.”
Senecal has indeed seen a lot of changes since she joined the Bristol Recreation Department as an assistant to then-director Gerrie Heuts in 2000.
“I had kids in high school, and that was important to me — to be able to get to their games,” she recalled. “It was a part-time position, and it allowed me to fit kids and family in and around a job that seemed like a really good fit for my skill-set.”
The still-fledgling service at that time offered a few dozen activities for kids, families and seniors. Bristol residents were looking for ways to stay active, whether it be in sports, cooking, studying nature or painting.
Compare that to 2017, when Bristol Rec. offered 110 classes, workshops, camps and events, including pottery making, ballet-jazz dancing, gymnastics, Zumba, volleyball, African drumming and estate planning.
There have been teen dances, a popular “Movies in the Park” film series in the summer, daddy-daughter and mother-son dances, and basketball.
Senecal and her faithful assistant, Valerie Hanson, now coordinate with a cadre of more than 40 instructors to make the programs work.
“No wonder I am tired,” she said playfully of the multitude of offerings.
What makes Bristol Recreation Department’s programming even more impressive is that it is accomplished without dedicated facilities. The public playing fields adjacent to the Mount Abe campus are owned and managed by the Bristol Recreation Club, a separate non-profit entity. The Bristol Hub and Skate Park at 110 Airport Drive, which serves area youth, is also a separate entity — though it works closely with the Bristol Recreation Department.
So while the town of Middlebury has a newly built recreation facility on Creek Road, Bristol runs many of its programs in historic Holley Hall, when it is not being used for official town business. The department also collaborates with the Bristol Clay Studio at 27 Main St. and forms partnerships with other local venues — such as the Mount Abraham Union High School swimming pool and Bristol Elementary School gym — at which to hold activities and events.
 “We have to think of how we can use the assets we have in a different way,” Senecal said. “We are unique for a recreation department, in that we don’t have our own playing fields or a gymnasium. We don’t have a lot of things that a traditional rec. department has. We partner with whoever we can.”
It sometimes comes down to bartering. For example, the town will let Mount Abe use Holley Hall for a dance in return for loan of the high school swimming pool.
Senecal has used email, social media, surveys and focus groups to get input on what programming is most likely to succeed.
“There is no shortage of people coming in to tell us what we should do, which is great,” she said with a smile.
Programming has been slowly trending toward an older demographic — not only because Vermont is a graying state, but also because of Bristol Elementary’s acquisition of a federal grant that has allowed it to offer some on-site activities after school. These participants are also offered transportation home after the school activities, Senecal noted.
She praised that Bristol Elementary programming, though acknowledged it has thinned the customer pool for Bristol recreation programming.
So Bristol recreation offerings have been tailored accordingly.
You’ll see seniors coming to Tai Chi classes, and very young children partaking in a new Wednesday morning “tot playtime” at Holley Hall.
“Our goal has been to serve the entire family,” Senecal said.
And she’s served many families through the years.
“The thing I have loved about this job is that it’s given me such a connection to my community. I love that. I can’t imagine a job that would make me more intertwined with the breadth of our community on Bristol.”
Now she’s getting ready to become more invested in Addison and Rutland counties in her new role with Building Bright Futures, a statewide nonprofit, public-private partnership focused on “improving the well-being of young children and families by improving the system that serves them,” according to the organization’s website. Senecal will be able to do much of her work from home, but will also network with families throughout the area, recommending services that could benefit young children.
Rest assured, she will not be leaving Bristol. She plans to volunteer for various community causes.
Senecal will miss the day-to-day contact with locals of all ages that has helped make her Bristol Rec. job particularly enjoyable.
The Bristol selectboard on Feb. 5 is slated to review the recreation department director’s job description and begin the recruitment process.
Bristol town Administrator Valerie Capels said Senecal will be missed.
“Darla has been a pleasure to work with in the short time I have been in Bristol,” she said. “Her enthusiasm for her work comes through in everything she does. Our loss will be Building Bright Futures’ gain. It will be a challenge to find someone to take her place.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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