by Eric Sharpe
Bear with me on this one… it starts out it a rather predictable manner. Establishing the foundation of an article about a swimming pool can be that way, but as with many “public interest” stories MoFi (that’s Montana Fitness Magazine for those who don’t know) has done, the initial goal of this article quickly turned into something we’d not anticipated.
In looking at the opportunities in Billings to splash in the water during the summer we discovered a host of places most residents are aware of: The Reef is a cool indoor water park at the Big Horn Resort; South Park pool off 6th Avenue has a legacy of lap lovers; and the Rose Park Pool just off Grand Avenue near 24th Street with its cool slide. But the newest (relatively speaking) and perhaps most unique water parks in Billings may be flying under your radar. Located in the Alkali Creek area of the Heights, right off Aronson Avenue, is the Oasis Water Park. Opened in 2012, the park boasts some very cool water features: a zero-depth-entry swimming pool, dizzying corkscrew slides, a wave generator, a cool current channel, and a bunch of play features.
That was going to be it. A few pictures, a few more words of description… on to the next article. But during my interview with Chuck Barthuly, Executive Director of the Better Billings Foundation, which built the park, I discovered a story that felt uniquely “Billings” – a small town effort in a big town environment. The Oasis is not just a really cool pool, it is a place of community and wellness, created by an impressive gathering of selfless people who sought to provide a place of enrichment for everyone in Billings.
This is not a sales piece – not an advertorial. We don’t do that – (you know that by now, right? We don’t promote for pay). But when MoFi sees a place, activity, or event, aimed at health, wellness, and or fitness, with the added feature of “vibrancy and optimism created by unity” we’ll gladly promote it.
The heights didn’t have a pool. After three failed attempts to pass a bond to build an aquatics facilities for height residents, a community of like-minded people took action. About 800 families took part in a fundraising campaign they called “Pool Together” in an effort to raise $5.1 million to build the Oasis, a public outdoor aquatic facility and community center.
“It wasn’t just fundraising, it was the sacrifices” that made the effort so special, indicated Chuck as he related stories of families giving up free time, vacations, and selling possessions (like a be-loved Harley) in raising the needed funds. “People took money they’d set aside for themselves, and gave for this community.”
With the all-hands-on-deck approach, and some $1million of in-kind donations and other support from Billings business’, their fundraising goal was reached and in 2012, the Oasis became reality.
Chuck was plain speaking in his explanation of the driving force behind the effort. “This park wouldn’t exist without Harvest Church and was the brain child of Vern Streeter, Lead Pastor. His vision was to provide a tangible gift to our community.”
The Better Billings Foundation was formed to “provide opportunities where kids and families thrive” (from their website) and served as the non-profit vehicle for the fund raising effort of the pool. Though driven by the Harvest Church and their strength of faith, their work does not proselytize. The pool is not a place of religion, it is a place of community, for the Billings community.
Chuck related that Pastor Streeter would say, “We want to be a church that is so relevant and tangible in our community that even the most ardent critic of Christianity would be bummed if we ceased to exist.”
More than a Pool
And thus, Oasis is not just a pool. It creates memories for kids and families, and provides a real sense of being an “Oasis” of play and relaxation in the middle of what can some times seem to be a work-tough city. Oasis also offers swimming lessons, as do Rose Park, South Park, Granite, Yellowstone Fitness, and the YMCA… and swimming lessons save lives.
The Better Billings Foundation was founded in 2005 by the leaders of Harvest Church and is a “separately governed, non-sectarian organization dedicated to providing community service and facilities, outreach and opportunities for family enhancement and youth achievement.”
This non-profit also runs other community focused programs such as the Book Nooks, a lending library for kids; Park to Park which “connects some of our most deserving youth with our most talented youth through a mentoring program” through travelling to the many other places of fun in the city; and Parenting with Purpose which helps “parents, guardians, and primary care givers learn tools to raise and guide children into adulthood.”
The foundation’s vision is aimed at empowering the Billings community and focuses, in part, on “support for activities, projects and services addressing the needs of at-risk, low- and moderate-income individuals, civic activities and family support.” -again, from their website.
Though this issue of Montana Fitness Magazine is dedicated to water, our discovery of the Oasis water park and the impetus behind it begged a brief off course jog into the power of community, and the power of members of that community to seek wellness through recreation. But not just by building a water park, but via the process of seeking an objective which in turn brought together families for a common goal for which they would sacrifice, learn, grow, and participate in something bigger than themselves. In that respect, the construction of Oasis was simply the reward for that shared experience.
Of course, I’d be remiss to end on that note of honor to the Better Billings Foundation and the Harvest Church, as Billings’ water fun “to-do-list” should be added to in this issue dedicated to water. When asked about the park’s favorite feature? Chuck relates, “it is the current channel,” which pushes swimmers and tire tube enthusiasts around corners to a vortex which is “the water equivalent of a tire swing.” Don’t worry, lifeguards monitor time in the vortex to help prevent sea-sickness.