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Gainesville Family First To Win The Michelle Park Family Recreation Scholarship

For Jennifer Garrity, a day in the park created a life-changing opportunity.

Garrity and her sons were at Westside Recreation Center in Gainesville when a woman pointed out a flier.

The flier advertised a scholarship that caught Garrity’s eye, but she had to apply to have a chance – and she only had a couple of hours to do so.

She hurried to complete all portions of the form, including rushing to a friend’s home for the reference, scribbling out the essay on a piece of scrap paper and running in the rain just to make the deadline.

“It poured out of me,” she said of the essay portion. “There were a lot of typos, but she must’ve felt me.”

All the rushing paid off.

The Garrity family is the first family to receive the Michelle Park Family Recreation Scholarship from the City of Gainesville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department. The scholarship is valued at $1,500 and includes a $250 gas card, said Garrity.

The scholarship will provide the family with free after-school activities and camps, free cultural events and recreation and sports activities for the next year.

“The scholarship was created for families to engage in recreational and cultural activities for free,” said Alicia Antone, development and partnership program coordinator. “We wanted to remove all the barriers from participating in these activities.”

The award was first set into motion when an anonymous donor decided to help establish a scholarship that would help families get into recreational activities they didn’t have the opportunity to participate in before.

There were only a handful of families who applied this year, but Antone said the city expects a bigger turnout in upcoming years as they work to expand the advertising efforts for the scholarship. She said they plan to give out four more scholarships over the next four years.

The scholarship’s donor also wanted to honor Michelle Park, assistant director for Gainesville's parks department.

Park said she was humbled to have the scholarship named in her honor.

“The real purpose is to try to get families to play together all year and introduce new activities,” she said.

After reviewing the applications, Antone was especially touched by Garrity's essay.

“I was deeply moved by how she communicated her love for her family and that participating in the cultural events were lots of fun for her family,” Antone said. “I was also impressed by her civic engagement in volunteering in the community even with the demands of family and work.”

Garrity and her husband, Sean, have two boys, Finnegan, 6, and Milo, 8. With one child on the autism spectrum, it was hard for Jennifer to go back to work full time. It left no time for her to work on her own career, and the boys tired of hanging out with mom all day, she said.

“Money was an issue,” Garrity said. “It’s a big step to take, and the kids have never been in aftercare.”

Her husband works full time as an editor, but Garrity is looking to use the free time she'll gain thanks to the scholarship's childcare offer to get back into the full-time job market.

“I’m scared, but I’m going to keep moving,” she said.

She hopes to work as a life coach and help other families with children on the autism spectrum.

But the Garrity family isn’t just all work and no play. They expect to use the scholarship for fun activities, too.

Garrity grew up in south Florida and remembers when her mother took her to the Coconut Grove Arts Festival. She said it might have been the birth of her love for culture.

She has that in common with Park, who also grew up in south Florida and has fond memories of playing in parks with her family.

Garrity said taking a family to various events and activities adds up financially.

“I like to be integrated into the community,” she said. “When I couldn’t bring my kids everywhere, it was a total bummer.”

Because of time and money issues, it's been hard for the family to go to events like the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire, enrolling the kids in aftercare or even going to the pool.

Now, they'll be able to use the pool "like crazy" during the hot summer, she said.

The scholarship also lets the family give back to the community by requiring 20 hours of volunteering in order to maintain the award.

The Garritys are not sure what they will do yet, but they are looking into volunteering at the Morningside Nature Center.

In addition to keeping her kids active, she and her husband also have access to the Wellness Center at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Multipurpose Center. Garrity is especially excited to take yoga classes at the center, which she has heard good things about.

But she is most excited to get the kids out in the community and into activities, giving everyone time for themselves.

“It all came together for us,” she said.

Amanda is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.