Great communities don’t just fall together. Neither do lasting organizations. Case in point: the Elings Park Foundation.
“Creating ownership is the key,” Ken Jacobsen, president of the Santa Barbara Rugby Association, told Noozhawk. “We don’t just rent the fields; we feel.”
In addition to coordinating rugby play at the park and throughout the South Coast, Jacobsen also has served on the foundation board.
“Rugby makes a substantial contribution to us to help fund maintenance of the fields,” said Mike Nelson, executive director of the Elings Park Foundation. “They’re not just renting the facility.”
Since making Elings Park their home 15 years ago, rugby members have cleared brush, helped build viewing stands and provided volunteer labor as needed.
When volunteers were short for the park’s annual car show, the rugby association stepped in. Throughout the years, that event has morphed into the Santa Barbara Beer Festival, scheduled this year for Oct. 15, which raises an average of $5,000 for the park annually.
“It’s become a bit of a social calendar event in town,” Jacobsen said. “It’s an awesome day, professionally run and we’ve capped it at 2,000 people. We don’t want to get too big out of respect for the neighborhood.”
Rugby’s success and contributions are not an anomaly.
“There’s probably a dozen athletic recreation organizations, like Santa Barbara Mountain Bike Trail Volunteers, rugby, lacrosse, soccer and USA BMX, that are providing recreation out here,” Nelson said. “We’re charging a fee; they’re providing and running the programs.”
Such programs have flourished under the supervision of passionate volunteers and employees.
When Jeff Elings wanted to build a track for remote-control car enthusiasts, he was given a green light, complete with a license to rebuild the dirt track every year. Like others who desire specific programs, he heads up the fundraising, the volunteers and special events — and makes it happen.
The Santa Barbara Radio Control Modelers oversee remote-control flights over the park. The Santa Barbara Mountain Bike Trail Volunteers maintain the park’s nine-mile trail system.
“The mountain bike crew keeps their tools at the park, helps us with whatever is asked of them,” Nelson said.
“They’re busy. They’re smart. Plus, they do the dirtiest work possible.”
And volunteers, apparently, are happy to give.
“We’ve rented fields for years,” Jacobsen said. “A city’s driven by allocated budgets that are limiting. I don’t think they have the flexibility where a nonprofit can think outside of the box.
“Elings Park Foundation doesn’t just raise money, but gets volunteers involved.”
It also maintains a few paid staff positions for particularly specialized or time-intensive jobs.
Septuagenarian umpire, player and organizational whiz kid Clyde Bennett serves as the park’s director of softball. He oversees three ball fields and the 900 players on 75 adult softball teams who fill the fields every weeknight throughout the long seasons. There are men’s leagues, women’s leagues and co-ed leagues — fast- and slow-pitch.
Bennett also directs a summer softball camp and still finds time to play.
“It’s a love for me,” he explained. “There’s strategy involved in fast-pitch. Slow-pitch is more social, but it’s all fun. My son plays and my two granddaughters play.”
Veteran softball players may remember Bennett as the city’s longtime softball director. He served there for a quarter-century before that program was dropped. Elings Park snapped him up in 2008, and they’ve never looked back.
“His organizational skills are pretty remarkable,” Nelson said. “If he ever leaves, I’m leaving.”
Bennett noted several differences that set foundation-funded Elings Park apart from municipal parks funded by tax dollars.
“Our fields are all in one place; the city’s are all spread out,” he said. “They have problems with the homeless at city parks downtown; we’re able to lock up at night and the park is remote.”
Elings is also able to allow alcohol on its grounds, where city parks ban it.
“You might laugh, but that’s significant for recreational ball players,” Bennett said. “Most people who play softball like to have a cold beer after the game. It’s appealing. It’s social. It’s part of softball.”
The rule exemplifies the park’s goal of serving its users rather than regulating them.
“I know what softball players want because of all the experience I’ve had at every level,” Bennett said. “It’s not a business for me. We’re concerned about the players, not making money.”
It’s that kind of dedication that makes founding board member Marcia Constance proud.
“I think, particularly for what we’ve built and the size of the board, we’re doing very well,” she said. “I’m very proud of it.”
Constance initially got involved with hopes of building a world-class tennis club like the ones she left behind when she and her husband moved up from Southern California. She stayed on to support the development of Godric Grove and never left.
“It’s been fun,” she said. “It’s fun giving back, and I’ve met a lot of wonderful people, but I’ve loved seeing the way the park has developed.”
The institutional knowledge longtime board members provide is invaluable.
“This park’s been in existence for 30 years and she’s been on the board for all 30,” Nelson said. “She’s as active and important to the heartbeat of this organization as she was when it all started.
“That puts her on the remarkable list.”
There have been other angels to the park, like the park’s namesake, Virgil Elings, whose funding has helped secure countless opportunities for the park and the community it serves. There are board members and other volunteers who give of their professional expertise on a pro bono basis.
“The 17-member board is the umbrella, and many of the members do double duty on various additional committees,” Nelson explained. “As a nonprofit, when your board members offer big donations, of course we love to accept, but by the same token when you have professionals putting their heads together, that really saves us money and time.
“If I can get that kind of expertise without touching Virgil’s donation, that means I can use his money to resurface the roads or provide some other improvement or service in the park.”
Now a new generation of Elings fans are on board.
Adam Webster and Aaron Webster, now tennis pros at the Las Positas tennis courts managed by the Elings Park Foundation, grew up riding their bikes to the courts, dragging friends along for the ride and coercing them to pick up the game, too. Some of those friends became lifelong tennis players as well, and the Webster brothers went on to become star players for Santa Barbara Christian School, Santa Barbara High School and respective universities.
“The Las Positas courts have always been close to our hearts,” Adam Webster said. “It’s almost like home for me, and I love seeing the kids riding their bikes there today to do the same thing that we did back then.
“We encourage the kids to be there, and we want them to let us know who they are so we can let them know when we have special events coming up.”
Youths age 17 or younger play for free at the courts, and the Websters have big plans for the future, including youth tournaments, clinics and exhibition matches.
“Tennis can be a lifelong sport for everyone,” Adam Webster said. “Bob Sherman is the winningest human being in the country for national titles. He’s 95 and still plays.
“Those are the kinds of influences you have to see to understand you really can play your whole life.”
Planning gamesmanship and politics aside, volunteers, employees and park supporters still dream big for Elings Park.
“I’m here every day,” Bennett said. “The dog people are here every day. There’s softball and soccer and rugby. People come just to take batting practice in the cages. There are people walking, riding bikes.
“There’s always something going on. The fields are overused, we could certainly use more, but I think that’s a good thing.”
But all of that takes community support and funding. The foundation raises 25 percent of its annual $1 million budget through grants and use fees, such as facility rentals, memberships and parking fees. The balance must be covered by donations.
“There’s a great deal of pride in the Mesa community now,” Nelson said. “If you look around the nation, you don’t normally find a situation like this. It’s important we get the community involved.
“It’s important we provide venues for community events, as we do for the hot air balloons that raise funds for Doctors Without Walls-Santa Barbara Street Medicine. Summit for Danny is a series of hikes that raise money for the Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse. It’s our way of contributing to the community.
“While we can’t make donations to the cause, we can provide venues for these organizations.”