Parks and Leisure Educators Honor Brooke Burk

Parks and Leisure Educators Honor Brooke Burk


What’s the most effective way to determine what kind of health programs youths need most? Especially those in populations where obesity is a trend and knowledge about well being and access to exercise often are limited?

Just ask the kids.

It may seem obvious, but when Brooke Burk, a SUNY Cortland assistant professor of recreation, parks and leisure studies, asked girls in suburban mid-western communities about what could be done to improve their health through local after-school parks and recreation programs, she was taking a new approach.

Burk, who was working on what turned out to be a nationally honored doctoral dissertation at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, discovered that many programs were essentially cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all in design. Sometimes parents filled out surveys to measure program satisfaction, but the youngsters actually in the programs usually did not.

The result has been a mismatch between some youth and the after-school programs intended to serve them.

Young African American girls were interested in having opportunities to develop lifelong health pursuits through activities that they felt were fun, such as cooking classes, dancing or cheerleading programs rather than a prescribed fitness hour, Burk found.

 “When you do go about creating programs, the after-school program at one facility might not look the same as the one at the other location,” said Burk, who joined SUNY Cortland in 2011. “The goal may be the same but the things you are doing might be a little bit different.”

Burk’s findings resonated with an awards committee of the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration (AAPRA), which recently named Burk among three finalists for the 2012 AAPRA Best Paper/Doctoral Dissertation Award.

Burk will accept the recognition at the academy’s General Membership Meeting during the 2012 National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) Congress on Thursday, Oct. 18, in Anaheim, Calif. She also will present her dissertation findings during the congress.

Burk earned her Ph.D. in leisure behavior in August 2011. She had two years to submit her dissertation with a nomination summary to the academy’s Best Dissertation Awards Committee, as the national award only is given out every other year.

Her dissertation was titled “African American Girls’ Perceptions of Health, Obesity and Recreation.”

Burk, in her dissertation, presented prior research that indicates only 21 percent of African American girls meet the daily, recommended levels of physical activity in school; and 39.2 percent of them are overweight and obese. Her study also noted that, historically, African Americans have suffered from discrimination in the availability of leisure programs and spaces.

The purpose of her research was to examine what African American girls thought about health and obesity and what leisure-service organizations could do to address their health needs.

She interviewed, transcribed and analyzed the information gleaned from 18 girls in this cultural population. They were between the ages of 7 and 13, and were enrolled in after-school programs at either a Boys and Girls Club or a park district in a mid-sized mid-western town. The young females were asked questions like, “What activities do you wish were offered here?”; “What does health mean to you?”; and “What does it mean to be fat, skinny or thick?”

Burk noticed patterns of how the girls thought about health, body types and lack of opportunities.

“Learning about health was important to the girls as well, but they wanted to learn in a fun environment such as an after-school program,” Burk stated in her dissertation. “The girls were interested in interactive learning environments where they could participate in activities such as cooking classes or engaging in conversations about health with program leaders. They desired programming that focused on health because they currently were not learning about health while at the agencies.”

Tellingly, when the research subjects were asked to name their important role models to learn about health, the girls listed family caregivers and health professionals, but not leaders at leisure service agencies such as parks programs and youth clubs.

Because of parents’ working schedules, many African American girls don’t have necessarily an adult around to teach them about food preparation, eating choices and dining habits that could affect their longtime health. Their schools don’t always provide sufficient gym or recreational time, either.

So the after-school recreation program can meet a critical need in a young Black woman’s development.

 “These things need to be addressed culturally,” Burk said recently. “We need to be aware of how (African American girls) are thinking.”

Burk maintains you have to get to know the children to find out how they think about certain types of foods and certain types of people. For example, many teens, Black or White, may avoid associating with thin people because they think they’re doing drugs or have an eating disorder, Burk said. A recreational mentor can be the one to teach them how to make healthier choices and associations.

“I guess my own philosophical approach is that universal programs are not necessarily always good,” she said. “So it really goes back to understanding, when it comes to recreation, who you’re serving and how to serve those individuals. Which is a challenge.”

Burk is interested in continuing her research in this vein. After she finds a suitable study population, she will look for research funding.

“No one else that I know of from our faculty ever has received the award,” said Sharon Todd, chair of SUNY Cortland’s Recreation, Parks and Leisure Studies Department. “We are so proud of Brooke. She has been such a solid addition to our faculty, and she’s certainly ‘hit the ground running’ in terms of teaching, research and service to the department and College.”

A native of Indianola, Iowa, Burk also earned a Master of Arts in Leisure, Youth and Human Services with an emphasis in youth development at University of Northern Iowa and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology at the University of Iowa. In 2008, she was honored by the University of Northern Iowa as the Outstanding Graduate Student in Research.

At SUNY Cortland, her scholarship has been supported by a small grant from the College’s Faculty Development Center and an Individual Development Award from United University Professions.

She has served the NRPA since 2009 as an at-large member of its Programs Committee. Starting this coming October year, she will be a liaison between the NRPA and the College and also will serve as a young professional representative on the organization’s Education Network. Burk chaired the NRPA’s Young Professional Network from 2010-11.