Oftentimes, we enjoy certain pleasures without any consideration for the people who made it possible. The workers who clear Lady Bird Lake of any branches broken off in a storm. The volunteers who pick up trash left on Zilker Park after Blues on the Green. Or even the builders who construct new playgrounds and parks in your neighborhood. Leading the charge on these projects is Director of Parks and Recreation Department Sara Hensley, who has enough passion, tenacity, and care to cover Austin’s square footage and the residents who live here.
After earning a master’s degree in education and recreation administration from the University of Arkansas, Hensley gained experience from working in Champaign, Ill., Virginia Beach, Va., San Jose, Calif., and Phoenix, Ariz. Through this change of scenery and climate, Hensley’s knowledge of landscape and park care grew. By 2008, she had “fire in the belly,” as she calls it, to move to Austin and continue her work here. “It was time for a little more green.”
Since then, Hensley has partnered alongside C3 and the Trail of Lights Foundation to ensure safe festivities for the beloved Zilker park, protected the public from reckless pet owners and overbearing intramural leagues, and taken care of Roy and Ann Butler Hike and Bike Trail, Lady Bird Lake, Zilker and the boardwalk, Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park, and several others. “These are special places no other city has that creates this big beautiful area for people to take hikes, bike, and run,” she says. “We’re really fortunate here in Austin.”
Hensley experiences satisfaction by knowing the land she is in charge of is being enjoyed. “You have to want to make a difference in somebody’s life. That’s the most rewarding thing,” she says. “As long as I know I’m doing that, I’ll continue to do it.”
Hensley prides herself in always telling the truth, even when it’s not what people want to hear. While some people may think the job Hensley and her department have is just balls, bats, and a lot of fun, they’re balancing what’s best for the land, the air, the water, and the people. Every decision Hensley and her team makes is with regards to the community. “When I say community, I mean the Big C,” Hensley says. “Not just the people, but the environment as well.”
The efforts being made by Hensley and her department are clearly visible when you’re outside enjoying the trails and weather. Just last spring, Zilker Park was ranked among the Best 10 Parks Nationwide according to USA Today. One of Hensley’s favorite accomplishments the department has made is raising the park land dedication fees. This means that any time a development wants to build residentially, they have to pay a dedication fee to Austin’s Park and Recreation Department, or provide land in lieu of money. This ruling has always been in place, but never worth actual repairs or land. Hensley considers herself a preservationist, but she knows you can’t get done the things you need to without working alongside the community. “The quality of life is high up on the list of what matters to the people of Austin,” Hensley says. “We’re doing everything we can, along with your help, to preserve that.”