Alexis Roberson spends a lot of her summer days at the District's playgrounds and swimming pools. But she never uses the playing fields and she never swims.
Roberson, 42, is working. She is the little-known director of the city's Department of Recreation. The pools and playing fields she supervises are summer vacation spots for many of the city's poorer families, the key symbol of freedom for many city youngsters, and a free spa for many of the city's better off families.
From her offices on upper 16th Street NW, Roberson manages more than 300 recreational facilities, including 13 senior centers, 162 tennis courts, 103 playgrounds, 23 ball fields and 45 swimming pools. She has a staff of 1,400 and a budget of $23.1 million.
She plans and participates in many indoor and outdoor activities, such as the popular annual Potomac Riverfest event held on the waterfront.
"I stay busy . . . . If I were to explain all the things I am responsible for, we would be here all night," she said one recent evening during an interview in her spacious office with thick green carpet, handsome furniture all surrounded by bright green walls, at 3149 16th Street. "With all the work I have to do, I may be here anyway."
William H. Rumsey, the longtime director of the department and Roberson's predecessor, said that many people were skeptical about a woman heading a recreation department.
"The general feeling was that this was a man's job . . . . People thought it would be tough for a woman to handle, but so far she has done a superb job, she has proven to be one of the best head of departments in this city." he said.
Roberson also has won praise in the community.
"We had nothing but land, no recreational facilities whatsoever," said Robert Weldell, advisory neighborhood commissioner for the Congress Heights Highlands area in far Southeast. "Construction started just about a year ago and now we are looking at swings, an amphitheater, a Jungle Gym, just about everything a center needs."
Other ANC commissioners said they also found Roberson helpful.
Roberson said that the job had not been easy, but was "incredibly challenging" and "incredibly rewarding." She said that she loves her work and loves her staff, but sometimes hates the hours.
"We plan programs five days a week, and then we have to participate in many of them during the evenings and many, many weekends," she said with a sigh of exhaustion. "We sometimes work seven days a week, and we pay no overtime. But we do it because it needs to be done and the department needs the lift."
Roberson came to the department in 1981 as deputy director after working as the Deputy Director of Opportunity Industrialization Centers here. She was brought on, she said, to "help the department rebuild its facilities and morale."
"When I came on board, the department was in serious trouble," she said. "The facilities needed lots of renovations, vehicles were in disrepair and we had serious management problems."
Roberson explained that Rumsey, who had been without a deputy for several months, "had no one to help him battle these problems," and that "I came on as deputy to help this department out of this mess," which she largely attributed to the layoff of 48 employes in 1980 because of city budget problems.
"But I don't want to talk about the RIF reduction in force . I am so tired of talking about the RIF. That's behind us now," she said as she straightened the padded shoulders of her bright red-and-white polka-dot dress.
"The productivity of my staff is 100 percent, plus," she proudly reported with a smile, "and that's an indication of where the morale is around here now."
Roberson credits the growth in morale to the "wellness and fitness program" she introduced for department workers last year.
Under the program, the first of its kind in the city government, recreation department employes are given a complete physical examination and then an individualized physical fitness prescription that includes three kinds of exercises: aerobics for the heart, flexibility and weight-lifting.
The employes exercise and work out at the department's gymnasium in Southwest. There also is counseling in smoking, drinking, drugs and psychological problems.
Roberson also has initiated a Neighborhood Arts Academy for children 5 through 18 years old who take lessons in music, dance, visual arts and drama at eight centers.
"It occurred to me that not everyone going to the recreation centers were interested in playing basketball or swimming," said Roberson, "so now they have other options as well . . . and a lot of talent as been discovered so far."
Roberson said department vehicles are being repaired, maintenance is being computerized, several new recreation centers are under construction and some olders ones are undergoing a facelift.
She often stops by recreation centers during trips to and from her office from her home east of the Anacostia River where she lives with her son, who is 17.
Roberson admits that not all her ideas have been succesful.
Last year Roberson proposed charging city residents for the first time for the use of some recreational facilities. The proposed fees would have ranged from $1 for children's swimming lessons to $12 a month for swimming for adults, and from $7 and $150 for reserving recreational facilities.
Citizens groups from across the city immediately criticized the proposed fees and Roberson finally withdrew them.
"I got beat up real bad on that one," she said. "The mayor called me up and said 'Don't go with it; the citizens don't want it,' and I said 'Yes, sir, Mr. Mayor, and put all my stacks of research behind me."