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It Never Hurts to Ask

Passion and Dedication are the Key to a Perfect Haunting at the City of Olathe, Kansas Community Pool


Shelby Duncan

by By Shelby Duncan, City of Olathe, Kansas

It never hurts to ask. How can we serve the community better? What can we do to improve our programs? Who will help? Shelby Duncan of the City of Olathe recounts both the trials and successes of creating a brand-new event, the Annual Haunted Swamp and Pumpkin Dive and shares why it never hurts to ask for help.

As someone who works in the aquatics field fall is usually a letdown for me. The days become shorter, the weather becomes cooler and of course, the pools close. However, for the last 4 years I have gotten myself out of this funk by offering what has become my favorite event.  In July of 2014 the City of Olathe opened the Community Center, featuring an award-winning swimming pool.  Two months after the grand opening I was in full swing planning the First Annual Haunted Swamp and Pumpkin Dive.

It’s four years later and the Swamp is still my favorite event. The Haunted Swamp has morphed along the way. We have explored different dates, times, activities, and decorations. We have landed on what seems like the perfect time, date, and length. The Swamp is held the Saturday before Halloween, an hour after the pool closes to public and the sun sets, allowing ample time for the natatorium to transform. It lasts for just an hour and a half, but for families this time slot is just right. The Haunted Swamp has grown through the years, starting with only 60 kids; we now enroll 150 kids annually with a waiting list.

This event was on our local news and in our local papers in 2015 which, I believe, aided in the jump of enrollment our second year. We have little advertisement for the Haunted Swamp outside of our website and program catalog. However, with the success of the event each year it has continued to grow through families returning annually and bringing new friends. What the public sees, and what the parents see, are their kids having a great time in a safe pool fully decorated and staffed by costumed and enthused lifeguards. But behind the scene is months of planning, prepping and decorating, local business support, and of course the City’s support to provide a fun filled hour and a half of sheer joy and excitement.

As I said the planning starts in late August, however the date is planned and the program is scheduled the spring before, the real work begins in early fall. One of the key tasks is to secure the pumpkins for the pumpkin dive. With permanent markers, kids decorate a small pie pumpkin at the start of the event, and then staff throw the pumpkins in a designated area of the pool according to the kids’ swimming ability. The kids must then swim through a sea of floating pumpkins to find theirs. Once the pumpkins are all accounted for, it’s time for the free swim for all the family in the swamp. For this to work, we need at least 160 pumpkins. One hundred and sixty pumpkins can be hard to track down especially if the crop has not been favorable that season. Yet, every year I seem to luck out finding a pumpkin patch willing to accommodate.

I begin by calling all local pumpkin patches and grocery stores asking for donations. For the first year, I started asking for pumpkins too late in the season and all the grocery stores were sold out. One pumpkin patch laughed at me for my request of 60 free or discounted pumpkins and I began to feel discourage, but I had a vision and was not going to give up so I kept calling. You would be surprised at how many pumpkin patches there are in the Kansas City area. Finally, I got through to the Powell Pumpkin Patch and they agreed to give me 75 pumpkins free of charge in support of my event. I just had to pick the pumpkins up myself the day of the event and I could have what was left of the crop. The following two years my pumpkin donations fell through the week before due to a low yield in the crop and I was left scrambling, but still managed. I had to purchase 125 pumpkins at full price from various grocery stores and pumpkin patches. This year I got on the ball early and was requesting a discounted price, which seemed to go over better than free. KC Pumpkin Patch agreed to sell me 160 pumpkins for $200. Though I have learned these past years, it’s not a done deal until we have the pumpkins, so fingers crossed.

With the bulk of my budget being spent on pumpkins and staff, it doesn’t leave much for decorations, though the transformation of the pool into a swamp is vital in the theme of the Haunted Swamp. The first year I purchased a few items like fake tombstones and spider webs. However, it didn’t seem like enough so I began asking for donations yet again. I first asked fellow staff if they had any old decorations they weren’t using and would be willing to give. That is where our collection of jack-o-lanterns began. I also spent hours cutting out bat and rat silhouettes taping them all over our natatorium windows. It was a subtle touch that made a big difference.

By year two, I knew the decorations had to be stepped up and the donations would have to be impressive. Come September 2015, I was calling all grocery stores and general merchandise stores in the area asking if they accepted donation request. All the businesses I contacted seemed to be willing to help at least a little. I was given gift cards form Hy-Vee, a local grocer, for the purchase of candy and another one from Wal-Mart to assist with decoration purchases.  Year three I built a photo booth and cut out more props. I was asking even more stores to help through donations and secured additional funds from Target to purchase more decorations. Flash forward to now, year four and the event and donation request are smooth sailing. With a standard request letter, I have added more and more stores to my donation list. Each store gives an average of $25 so it adds up quickly and the decorations continue to grow.

This year I had a new idea for even grander decorations. After all, the themed swamp and pumpkin dive is what the event is all about.  Therefore, I reached out to the City of Olathe’s Construction team. We have collaborated and are currently building our own set of tombstones and silhouettes. Each year the collaboration grows, the donations grows, the event grows, the number of participants grow, and the smiles grow and I have grown. Additionally, I have realized my passion along the way. Most importantly I have learned it never hurts to ask, the worst that can happen is they say no.

If you are in the Kansas City area on October 28, I highly recommend you take a peek at our Haunted Swamp. If you have access to a pool of your own, I encourage you to create your own Haunted Swamp event and don’t forget to think outside the box.

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