“All through my life, I’ve loved sports and being outside,” she said. “I wanted to be in every sport.”
After 33 years in recreation management, 20 as director of the Northwest Ottawa Recreation Authority, she is retiring.
Vander Stel served in leadership roles at area YMCAs and became the NORA director in 1998. She was the third director to head the organization, which was formed in 1945.
When she took the position, the department had a negative fund balance of nearly $25,000. Vander Stel said it has not dipped negative since, as NORA has expanded from 41 programs to more than 170 for all ages, taking place on weekends, after school and all summer long.
While NORA keeps up with trends of what’s popular and seeks to provide recreation for all ages, programs are made possible through a multitude of collaborations, Vander Stel said. Programs change with the times, she added, as additions like pickleball have grown in popularity.
“I think of recreation as anything you do in your leisure time,” she said. “We have to choose what we can offer with the best bang for our buck. I always look at recreation as a giant puzzle. How do we solve the wants and needs of our community?”
NORA has also evolved to become a “one-stop shop” for parents, she explained, aligning with Grand Haven Area Public Schools with the goal of getting every child involved in an after-school activity.
NORA has in recent years considered a millage for funding, and has its eyes on creating a new recreation facility to house its programs.
The department will seek a new director in the coming months.
Vander Stel plans to remain involved in local recreation, but also pursue “bucket list” goals like seeing the country’s National Parks.
In her time as director, Vander Stel said, she has loved watching children have their first-ever experience with a sport, and years later still be involved and living a healthy lifestyle.
“To see these kids grow up and know we were part of that mentoring and helping them grow and learn how to give back, that’s a big piece of what I’m proud of,” she said.