The Recreation Foundation of Hopewell Valley funded renovations to Ackerson Field at the high school. (Photo by Martin Griff)

Sixteen years ago, a group of area residents started The Recreation Foundation of Hopewell Valley with the goal of improving youth access to athletic facilities in the area.

The grassroots organization started by then-Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance director Sheryl Stone and several others was, by most measures, extremely successful. Since 2002, the foundation has raised more than $2 million, enough to fully fund the construction of six playing fields at Timberlane Middle School, the artificially surfaced Ackerson Field at the high school, and a grant program for local nonprofits.

Those jobs done, the foundation is looking for new projects and new trustees to take them on. Many of the people who have played major roles, like current co-chairs Kim Bruno and Jon Butler, have seen their children age out of the system.

So starting this year, a new group is set to take over, led by Emily West, who will be the organization’s new president. Tom Patterson, Jeff Nau, Lainie Sullivan and Samantha Siegelheim are set to join her on the board. Meanwhile Stone, Lew Pepperman, Brad Brewster, Pat Ryan and some others who have long been involved are ready to step aside.

Bruno, a trustee who has been involved since 2003, plans to stay on during the transition, with Butler moving on to an advisory role. But she too is looking to gradually reduce her involvement.

“My kids graduated from Hopewell Valley (Central High School) in 2009, in 2012,” she says. “Most of the others, their kids are grown. So we wanted to transition the organization to the next group who are our recreational users and providers.”

West is the sort of person they had in mind. A board member of Hopewell Valley Lacrosse, she has two sons who play recreational sports in the Valley.

West says she sees the foundation deepening its advocacy efforts in the coming year. “What we really want to do is have our finger on the pulse of what parents are going through with their kids in youth sports these days,” she says.

One hot topic among parents is the heavy emphasis put on youth participation in sports and the trend toward early specialization. Parents tend to have strong feelings about these issues, West says.

She is an athlete who played Division III lacrosse at Colorado College, but says things are more intense these days. “There’s this wave where kids are making incredible commitments at such a young age,” she says.

Debate rages among parents and coaches over the practice of asking kids to choose one sport over all others when they are still young. There are also different schools of thought on whether kids should focus as heavily as some do on sports, or try to take a more balanced approach to life.

West said the foundation won’t take sides on issues like these, but will strive to lead the conversation in the Valley, providing support and educational opportunities to help parents navigate those issues and the many others that make youth sports challenging these days. She hopes to set up a speaker series in 2018 with experts coming to town to talk on a number of topics that are of concern to parents.

“We really are a community that cares about our youth,” Bruno says. “It’s more than just a statement to us. We really follow through in providing healthy outlets and building positive youth.”

With the fields completed at Timberlane and CHS, the foundation hasn’t had any major projects to focus on, but that hasn’t stopped it from hosting its major annual fundraiser, the Fall Ball. In the past few years, money the Fall Ball has brought in has been used to fund a grant program open to area nonprofits.

The organization honored retiring township administrator Paul Pogorzelski for his contribution to recreation in the Valley at the most recent Fall Ball, held at Trenton Country Club in November.

“He has had such an impact in our community, in every aspect,” Bruno says. “He was very helpful in our efforts to get the fields built. He actually did the engineering at Timberlane.”

West, who lives in Pennington, does business development for a health-care agency in New York. Her husband Brent is managing partner of Complete Document Solutions in Lawrence. Their sons are both students in the STEM program at Bear Tavern Elementary School.

She lauds the sunsetting trustees for the great work they have done. “Ten or 15 years ago, there weren’t even enough playing fields in Hopewell for the kids to practice on,” she says. “The best thing about the Recreation Foundation is that it’s basically fulfilled whatever the community’s needs have been over the past decade or so. So now the needs are shifting into building awareness of the issues we face today.”

She also expressed gratitude to Bruno and Butler for their help in bring the new trustees up to speed. “We wouldn’t be anywhere without them,” she says. “They have set me and the rest of the group up for success and to take the foundation forward.”