Sarah Sandquist of Champaign Park District

An almost coming home was in store for Sarah Sandquist when she was appointed the new executive director of Champaign Park District after the retirement of former director, Joe Deluce. The University of Illinois alum always saw the potential in the parks and recreation of Champaign and was thrilled when the opportunity arose to take part in the sculpting of its future development. We were fortunate enough to be able to sit down with Sarah during her busiest time and learn about her recent return to Champaign, what the Park District has scheduled for us throughout the summer, and what makes Champaign so unique.

Tell us about yourself and what brought you to Champaign Park District.

My name is Sarah Sandquist and I’m the new executive director of Champaign Park District. Most recently I worked for a suburb of Indianapolis called Fishers, which is about 25 minutes northeast of Indianapolis. I was there for five years but I was really excited to see the announcement of Joe retiring. My husband, whom I met while attending the University of Illinois, is a Champaign native, so we’ve been visiting a couple times a year for 20 years. Every time I have visited, I’ve always had the thought that this would be a great place to raise a family and to live and so when Joe had announced his retirement, I thought, wow this might be the opportunity to make a change and to come and lead this park district. I was always really interested in this park district as well just because of the vast number of amenities that a park district of this size has. It’s really not typical to have 14 facilities and 62 parks for the population size that Champaign is. And that was just really attractive to me to come someplace that’s very established and has really good bones and a really good park system already in place.

What would be considered a normal day in the position of executive director of the Champaign Park District?

Well, one of the things that I really love about Parks and Recreation is that every day is always different. It’s never boring. Our work changes seasonally and we’re in our busy season right now. Summer is where we really get to shine – We get to show off to the community, invite people into our parks and spaces, open up the pools, open up splash pads, put on special events and just encourage community building. This morning for example, I met with the department head and had a staff meeting where we talked about all kinds of things, from work charts to maintenance plans and new playgrounds that we’re talking about putting in – so just wide variety of conversations there. While we were meeting, I got a call from the aquatic center asking whether or not we should open for the day since the temperature is a little chilly for swimming weather but it’s nice and sunny out so we’re going to move forward with opening and then later today we are talking about a plan of how we can address different situations happening around the city so that we can ensure to the community that our parks are safe spaces for people to hang out and are great places for community building and recreation. So, it’s always changing. It’s a wide variety of staff management as well as overall operations of the district and being the face to the community, making connections with other community partners and looking for ways that we can build partnerships to increase the level of service that we provide to the community.

What are some events or programs that the community should be on the lookout for this summer?

We have a ton going on this summer. Every month, we offer jazz in the park, concert in the park a movie night and then our Day in the Park events.  These Day in the Park are smaller events that rotate in different areas around the city. At these events we will have bounce houses, food trucks, live music, and various games available. These Day in the Park events, as I said, rotate around the city so they really showcase all of our 62 parks we have to offer and by hosting them in different locations, it encourages people to go somewhere that they may have not been before. Also, with many of our parks being in neighborhoods, it allows people to get out and walk to these events which can be a draw for some families.

Additionally, Sholem Aquatic Center is now open for business. We’re open daily from 11;00 AM to 6:30pm and the water is warm even if the air temperature isn’t as warm as we’d like it to be right now! At the Aquatic Center we’ve got a lap swim and water walking in the Lazy River, which is a fun amenity that you don’t have elsewhere and then, of course our parks are open which we encourage you to explore on your own. We recently re-released our scavenger hunt that we developed during the height of Covid and it’s just a fun way to kind of visit places that you haven’t been before and check off the lists of parks you have been to in Champaign.

I love being able to see how we can think creatively about what the community needs and how we can diversify what we already have to just continue to build on that vibrancy.

What is something that you found in Champaign that kind of makes it different from other cities that you've seen.

As I’m getting into the summer season, I guess I really didn’t realize that with what we provide in terms of special events, activities and opportunities for people to get out into the parks and with those balanced against all of the other community partners in this community that provide opportunities for special events, is that there’s just always something going on here.Champaign is a really vibrant community and so it’s great to have such an established park district amidst all of this vibrancy and community. I love that I have been given the opportunity to really shape our parks and spaces for their next chapter. I love being able to see how we can think creatively about what the community needs and how we can diversify what we already have to just continue to build on that vibrancy. 

When you are not at work, what do you like to do in your spare time?

I have two young boys, a seven-year-old and a three-year-old, so we are outside all of the time. We love to spend time in the parks and as new residents explore new parks. My older son just started swim team, so that’ll keep us very busy this summer and then my younger son has started playing soccer as well as is always ready to jump into all of the other activities and participate just like his older brother. We like to go camping as a family and then I love to cook and read.  I just participated in the Illinois Half marathon, which was super fun and brought a bunch of friends in from out of town to participate in that. I also really just love that there’s so many activities going on in downtown Champaign throughout the summer where we can go have a date night and then be able to listen to live music and see people like family and friends out.

Main Photo PC : Darrell Hoemann of Hoemann Photography

Photo 1 provided by Chelsea Norton of Champaign Park District

Photo 2 provided by Chelsea Norton of Champaign Park District

Photo 3 provided by Chelsea Norton of Champaign Park District

Photo 4 provided by Chelsea Norton of Champaign Park District