Jessi Rochel has seen a fair bit of the world through her sports, academic and leisure travels, but there’s no place like home to pursue her passion for community recreation.
With the dual title of Carbondale Recreation/Community Center Manager and Recreation Programs Manager for the town, Rochel has been a big part of all things fun and active Carbondale has to offer since she was a teenager attending Roaring Fork High School.
Before graduating from RFHS in 2003, Rochel was already involved with the town’s various rec programs, helping with Start Smart Soccer and T-ball and score-keeping at youth and adult league tournaments.
While attending Colorado State University in Fort Collins, she came back for the summers and over holiday breaks to work for the Rec Department.
And, though she earned degrees in creative writing and international studies, even studying for a year abroad in Wales, home and the unique recreation opportunities the Roaring Fork Valley has to offer were where her heart was.
“I wasn’t like a lot of other people who could not wait to get out of here to go away to school,” Rochel said. “I was really nervous and scared about that, but CSU and Fort Collins reminded me a lot of Carbondale, so that helped.”
Things also just kind of happened naturally to help keep her around.
Rochel graduated from CSU in 2008 about the same time the Carbondale Recreation Center opened. She got a job as a recreation assistant for the summer, and things quickly progressed from there.
“It was 2008, and jobs were hard to come by,” she said of the Great Recession that also hit the economy hard that year. “But I graduated in May, and by August I had a full-time job.”
Rochel worked the front desk at the new Recreation Center for a short time before some staff reshuffling landed her in the programs coordinator position under new Programs Manager Rebecca Wagner.
“I had met Jessi when she was still in college and came back to work for the summer,” said Wagner, who is now executive director of the neighboring Crown Mountain Recreation District.
“We found out we have the same birthday, and we just clicked,” Wagner said.
“She’s a true local, and I think that’s what makes Carbondale really special is the people like Jessi and (Parks and Recreation Director Eric Brendlinger) who grew up there and know what the community wants and needs. I think that’s really important.”
Rochel’s family moved to Carbondale in 1990 from Minnesota, where Jessi was born. Her school years were spent in Carbondale, all the way from kindergarten through high school, where she played volleyball and basketball.
Her parents, Rich and Dee Rochel, have since moved to Arizona, but Jessi has been comfortable staying put.
“It’s a great place to live and work, and I loved growing up here,” Rochel said. “I’m small-town, through and through. And the more I’m here, the more I embrace what all there is to offer.”
Over the years, she started getting into trail running and mountain biking. In 2015, she and current recreation coordinator and municipal pool manager Margaret Donnelly decided to join up with the Challenge Aspen Trail Marathon Training Team to run a marathon in Auckland, New Zealand, while also raising money for Challenge Aspen.
It’s become an annual tradition and contributed to her love for world travel, taking her to marathons in other exotic places like Reykjavik, Iceland; Bariloche, Argentina; and Omis, Croatia. This year, she’s training with the Challenge Aspen team for the Catalina Island Marathon in October.
Recently, Rochel, Donnelly and friend Sara Porter also completed an Ironman triathlon in Boulder.
“Carbondale is such a fun place to be and train for events like that,” Rochel said. “And there’s so much that the town isn’t even directly involved with that make it fun, like Mountain Fair and all the other unique things that the community embraces.”
Rochel worked as programs coordinator until about six years ago when Wagner left to join Crown Mountain and longtime former Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Jackel retired.
Brendlinger, who had been the Recreation Center manager, took the lead director’s position, and Rochel applied for and got the job managing the Rec Center.
“The work itself is great, the people I work with are amazing, and the clientele is so easy,” she said. “Even through COVID with mask ordinances and everything, we didn’t have angry, belligerent or confrontational people, which says a lot about a community.”
The pandemic meant some big changes in the way recreation programs were delivered for several months this past year and continuing even today.
In a normal year, the Carbondale Recreation Center would be open 90 hours a week, 359 days a year, and is only closed on six holidays.
“Even on some of those holidays, we’re doing special events, so it’s really kind of nonstop,” Rochel said. “I always wished we could just be closed for a couple of days to get some stuff done, do a deep clean and regroup. Then, all of a sudden COVID hit, and we were closed down completely for two-and-a-half months.”
Through it all, the town was able to retain its full-time staff and most of its part-time staff. The down time allowed for some of that deferred maintenance to be accomplished and for the Rec Center to reopen on a limited basis with strict public health protocols in place.
Several of the town’s recreation employees also stepped up to become part of the official Carbondale Emergency Task Force, helping out with grocery and prescription deliveries during the stay-at-home orders and as people were negatively impacted economically by the shutdowns.
Rochel has a part-time gig doing custodial work at the Crystal Meadows Senior Housing complex in Carbondale, and through her connections there learned of some of the day-to-day needs of residents that she was able to pass along to the Task Force.
On the recreation front, at a time when people were feeling cooped up and needing to get out and recreate, one of the hardest things was turning people away from the Rec Center and canceling programs, Rochel said.
“We’re used to being ‘yes’ people, and we had to become ‘no’ people really fast,” she said. “That wasn’t a fun time for us. People really needed something to do, and we just weren’t able to offer much for a while.”
Slowly, some of that came back, including a socially distanced Turkey Trot foot race on Thanksgiving Day and more recently a new partnership with Sunlight Mountain Resort to stage the first-ever Tri for the Sun triathlon in June. The event featured a swim leg at the Carbondale pool, a bike leg from Carbondale to Sunlight via Dry Park Road and a trail run at the Sunlight ski area.
Aside from the daily operations of the Rec Center and programming oversight, Rochel manages to find time to teach preschool swim lessons and will occasionally jump in to help with other youth programs.
She has also been part of the community process to master plan for a new municipal pool facility. The master plan is now available on the town website for public viewing and input.
Another thing Rochel said she loves about Carbondale is its openness.
When a Basalt High School student approached her this spring about painting a LGBTQ pride flag in front of the patio entrance to the Rec Center, town officials were all for it.
“To live in and work for a town that is inclusive is great,” she said. “I’m very grateful for the opportunities the town and the rec department in particular have afforded me over the years.”
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or firstname.lastname@example.org.