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Parks Executive Director Debbie Kopas sets retirement date

Debbie Kopas, executive director of the Homewood-Flossmoor Park District, got to join others for the official tree lighting ceremony in Irwin Park to open the Holiday Lights celebration in Homewood on Dec. 2. 

It was a bittersweet moment because it would be her last time surrounded by park district staff that hosts the tree-lighting ceremony. Kopas is stepping down from her position June 30 after nearly 32 years with the park district. Santa flipping the switch to light the tree and all the festivities in town makes Holiday Lights Kopas’s favorite event.

“There’s just so many people and everybody’s happy. It’s just a great one,” she said.

H-F Park District Executive Director Debbie Kopas, center, with then-board president Steve Johnson, holds the 2018 Gold Medal Award won by the district. They are flanked by, from left, Darren Jasieniecki, Dallas Collins, Debbie Dennison, Stephanie Simpson and Dough Boehm. Kopas has announced that she will retire at the end of June. (Provided photo)

Whether it’s working through a contract, meeting with staff, discussing plans with architects or visiting park district facilities, Kopas finds every facet of her work “to be inspiring.” 

“It’s a whole different feel than working in private industry. It’s more collaborative; its 100% focused on providing opportunities and experiences for people. Running the park district is like running all these businesses,” she said. The park district has 27 parks and seven major facilities – H-F Racquet & Fitness Club, H-F Sports Complex, Irwin Community Center, Lions Club Pool, Irons Oaks, Coyote Run Golf Course and Wiley’s Grill, and the H-F Ice Arena.

“When you’re running a business a lot of it is sitting at a desk and sitting in meetings and it’s those times like Holiday Lights and Starry Nights, open houses and grand openings of new playgrounds, those are the times when it’s like ‘This is why we do what we do.’ 

“You get to see people enjoying what you’ve worked so hard for. Nobody sees the work that gets these things done. It’s those times when you get out from behind the desk, and you get to see and feel and see happy faces,” Kopas said. 

The H-F Park District won the Gold Medal Award for excellence in park and recreation management three times during her tenure. The award was presented in 2018 and in 2006 when Kopas was the executive director and in 1991, the year she started with the park district. The award is presented by the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration, in partnership with the National Recreation and Park Association.

She credits her outstanding staff and the support of the park board for those wins. The staff has worked as a strong team, she said. 

And, everyone did what they could during the pandemic. She remembers staff bringing outside-the-box ideas to redesign events and keep the community engaged. For example, when everything shut down in March 2020, the park district was about to host its egg hunt, but instead it had a drive-thru meet-and-greet with the Easter Bunny — at a safe distance.

Much of the park district’s expansion happened before her transition from business manager to executive director in 2006, but one of the major projects under her direction was construction of The Clubhouse at Dolphin Lake. The aged Dolphin Lake Pool was closed in 2010 but the Dolphin Lake Clubhouse remained open for several years while plans were put in place for the site.

“I just loved that view and I had an idea that we could somehow take that view and make something nice there,” she said. The building, at the corner of Governors Highway and 183rd Street, has a big porch on the north side facing the water and windows open the building’s interior to the beautiful view outside.

Kopas helped secure two state grants to cover a portion of the cost of The Clubhouse, and for revamping of Homewood Estates Park.

Now Kopas is focused on getting the H-F Ice Arena open in January. The park district was studying what work would need to be done at the ice rink, but when the ice system failed in November 2021 all the efforts moved into high gear. The system has been revamped and work continues to get the rink ready for the ice-making process.

Kopas is glad that major project will be done before the next executive director is in place. 

The park board will be doing an executive search using the services of GovHR. 

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