Women of Western Wake: Mary Henderson

Director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources, Town of Cary

Mary Henderson has seen the Town of Cary literally grow in a myriad of ways for more than 25 years. During that time with Cary’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources, Henderson said the community has ballooned “exponentially.”

Back in the early 1980s, Cary’s population stood near 21,000. Now it’s well above 125,000. When Henderson joined the department, it had six full-time employees. Now as director, she oversees a staff of more than 60 individuals, plus dozens of other part-time workers who change with the seasons.

“There’s been a lot of change and a lot of great people to work with over time,” Henderson said. “We’re doing something different every single day. It’s also connecting with a whole lot of different people. We’re with a lot of groups, a lot of individuals. One of the fun, exciting parts to me is the vision and looking toward the future, how do we set ourselves up in a good position for the future. It’s very dynamic and exciting.”

Henderson constantly thought about how the department could be better, even before she officially assumed control of it in 1995. As a Cary resident herself, she recalled taking her children to the same playgrounds that other families used. It not only gave her children the
opportunity for exercise and enjoyment, but Henderson often talked with the other adults to find out what programs and services they might want from their community.

“That helps you understand the connectivity issues. The more we participate, the more we can get input,” Henderson said.

Whether it was on a playground, a soccer field or during the highly successful Lazy Daze Arts & Crafts Festival, Henderson has sought to bring the citizens of Cary together.

“It’s part of the reason why the town has been able to attract so many people along the way,” she said.

As the town grew, so did the amount of space needed for activities. Henderson stressed that acquiring land for future development was crucial in having the department be a resource for the community. She highlighted the expansion of the town’s network of greenways as well as the development of the award-winning Koka Booth Amphitheater, one of the most significant projects she took on when she became director.

“You can always develop a future park. But if the land is no longer available, you’ve lost that opportunity,” Henderson said. “I really believe being proactive in that area is important.”

Another area Henderson wanted to cultivate into a greater strength in Cary for the betterment of the department was community involvement. While the department staff has grown substantially, she fully understands that events and projects do not come together solely by that contingent.
“We have a great sense of volunteerism in Cary. That’s one of the very best things about our area. We have lots of people who are willing to put in time and effort,” Henderson said.

“That goes back to … planning,” she continued. “We involve all sorts of people in the community. It’s not developing out of our office and going out. It’s coming from the community to here and for us to figure out how to meet those needs. In doing that, we’re providing those services that are important to people.”

And Henderson wants the search for what Cary residents find important not to be limited to sports and other fitness activities. As the last part of the department’s name indicates, community happenings associated with the arts, music and beyond compose a significant part of Henderson’s objectives for the department.

“I think the tradition in North Carolina parks and rec is in sports, but we’re talking about dealing with the whole person,” Henderson said. “In arts or sports, it’s all part of the whole person. That’s the attitude we take.

“We’re a fit community,” she continued. “As we put out our fitness options, we include the arts programs so people can have hobbies that lead to healthy lifestyles and interests.”
As the department — and Cary as a whole — continues to grow, Henderson will continue to follow the principles that have guided her thus far.

“Our motto around here is continuous improvement,” Henderson said. “It takes everybody doing that. We could always do things better, and that’s what we need to approach every day.”

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