Parks administrator dedicates her life to teaching children about healthy living

Renae Nottage, 59, has been working for Miami-Dade County's parks department for over 25 years. Throughout her career she has helped start many innovative programs, including Fit 2 Play, an after-school program that helps teach children the importance of physical activity and healthy eating habits that has now been implemented in cities across the country.
Renae Nottage, 59, has been working for Miami-Dade County's parks department for over 25 years. Throughout her career she has helped start many innovative programs, including Fit 2 Play, an after-school program that helps teach children the importance of physical activity and healthy eating habits that has now been implemented in cities across the country. Miami-Dade County

When Renae Nottage and her family moved from Overtown to Richmond Heights in the early 1960s, an old dirt road separated U.S. 1 from the community where they lived. Her father, Earl Nottage, a World War II Army veteran, was able to move them into a new development reserved for ex-military.

During the time before the civil rights movement, Richmond Heights was one of the few places in South Florida where African Americans could find decent affordable housing.

“I remember there was a dirt road that would take us from U.S. 1 to our community. It was surrounded by farmland,” said Sam Nottage, Renae’s younger brother. “We would go to the U-pick fields and pick fruits and vegetables. Every now and then, one of the farmers would bring a horse and give us a ride. It was quite a bit different than living in Overtown.”

For the past 26 years, Renae Nottage has worked for Miami-Dade County’s Parks and Recreation Department. From her days as a park manager in Miami Gardens, steering kids away from the influence of drugs and crime, to her role now as a regional manager and founder of the county’s Fit 2 Play program targeting the childhood obesity epidemic, Nottage dedicates her life’s work to preaching positive health habits. She is also the only African-American woman in the Parks department’s upper administration.

“I’ve always had a love for parks,” she said. “That’s made me who I am.”

Both Renae, 59, and Sam, 58, recognize the importance their parents and their background played in getting them involved in outdoor activities and engaging with their community from a young age. Renae and Sam both went on to play Division I softball and baseball at Florida A&M, a historically black university where Renae majored in physical education and recreation.

“I don’t think Renae would be able to do her job as well as she has without the strength that comes through a connection with your history,” Sam Nottage said.

Renae didn’t originally plan on working in parks and physical education. As early as 16, she had started volunteering as a medical assistant in an emergency room in Goulds. When she went to the University of Florida before transferring to Florida A&M, she studied to be a pediatric nurse — until a professor took the class to a morgue during her first semester.

“I passed out and my instructor suggested that I might try something else,” she said. “But I always had a passion helping kids.”

She didn’t originally want to come back to South Florida, either. Renae, a self-described introvert, had fallen in love with the small-town feeling in Tallahassee. However, when her mother, Rachel Nottage, fell ill with breast cancer she came back and began working at what is now known as Buccaneer Park in Miami Gardens, where she had her first group of 25 kids — elementary to high schoolers.

“It was in the center of a lot of crime and a lot of these kids came from single-parent homes, but to me, it was a beautiful park,” she said. “It was the park with the only outdoor skating rink in the department. We had contours, a tennis court, basketball courts, a playground, and it was right next to a school.”

Following a lead she learned from her parents, she stressed education. Her after-school programs provided tutoring for the children. Slowly, academic grades among her original group of kids started to rise. She also instituted a strict “no profanity” policy.

“The goal was to get these kids graduated and into colleges — to break the cycle. The biggest thing was giving them an opportunity,” she said. “It provided stability. That every day they had a set of rules that they had to abide by.”

Nottage began introducing these kids to tennis and the park eventually boasted the only all-black tennis team in the parks system at that time. Members of the program, throughout the years, got to meet tennis legends, including Andre Agassi and Venus and Serena Williams.

Some of these kids referred to her as “Miss Renae” — others called her “mom.”

For Nottage, one of the most important factors in ensuring the success of the program was getting the community, including the drug dealers, to buy into her program. She confronted certain dealers who would set up at the park, and told them that if they didn’t move, she would call the police. Through conversations with them, she argued for the importance of the park as a “safe haven” for their community. Eventually, on the weekends, she got some of these same individuals together with the older kids and adults to participate in card games and ping-pong tournaments.

“A lot of times these guys just need to realize that these are their brothers and sisters out here,” Nottage said.

Nottage, along with help from the research team at University of Miami, recently helped start the Fit 2 Play program — one of the first programs that connected an academic partnership with a parks system — to try and curb the growing obesity epidemic among children. The program provides children with after-school play activities, tutoring from counselors, and a section where kids learn about healthy foods and eating habits.

Dr. Sarah Messiah, a pediatric researcher at UM, has worked with the program since its inception eight years ago. She believes that Miami-Dade’s parks department — third-largest in the nation — is on the cutting edge of research in the field and credits the department’s innovative thinking in tackling obesity. The program has grown to where about 1,500 children have been volunteered to UM for research on the program’s effectiveness.

Fit 2 Play is now a national model and is piloting an initiative where pediatricians are now promoting the program directly through medical prescriptions.

“One in every two ethnic-minority patients we see in the UHealth clinic are already obese, and pediatricians really want these evidence-based programs to send their patients to,” Messiahsaid.

Messiah, 48, describes several minority groups as being “particularly challenged” when it comes to obesity. She identified access to healthy foods, to walkable communities, to physical activity programs in their neighborhoods, as reasons why these groups might be disadvantaged, and stressed the importance of a multifaceted approach in tackling obesity.

“There’s this third dimension about being outside. This generation of kids just doesn’t go outside anymore,” Messiah said. “From being outdoors, to being active, to playing together, the program teaches these kids so many of the social skills that they’ll need to get through the rest of their lives.”

Both Nottage and Messiah identified this social aspect of parks as a part of the conversation that often gets left out as it relates to funding for physical education programs — many of which have been cut in the past 10 years. However, according to Nottage, this past year was the first in several years where the department was not hit with cuts.

“Politicians are hearing this statistical data. Parents are going up to them and telling them not to cut park funding because it’s essential to their lives,” she said.

To Sam Nottage, a certified public accountant, the thing that sticks out the most when he thinks about his sister’s work are the words “dedication, commitment and advocacy,” and he rejects the notion that the the community is lacking positive, constructive voices.

“These are the kind of people that build and maintain communities. We just don’t always get the forum to showcase them,” Sam Nottage said. “If she wasn’t my sister, I would feel the same kind of awesomeness. I’m blessed that we share the same blood.”

Daniel Hidalgo: @DanielJHidalgo