Holly Rees

Holly Rees

Sparkly pink unicorns, Hershey’s kisses wrapped in tie-dye foil and wooden blocks with inspirational quotes wrestle for space with neat stacks of labeled file folders on Holly Rees’ desk.

Rees, director of the South Burlington Recreation and Parks Department, sifted through her to-do pile of papers on a recent weekday morning behind a shiny purple name plate that reads “Girl Boss.” She looked for the agenda for her staff meeting later that day while catching up with her department co-workers, who munched on the Dunkin’ Munchkins she brought them that morning.

Rees has run parks and rec in the city since 2018, but before that, she worked seasonally for the department for 32 years, starting when she was a summer camp counselor at age 16. On Monday, May 15, Rees was promoted to a new job: South Burlington city clerk.

Rees, 48, has dedicated most of her life to serving the South Burlington community. She organizes city clean-up days and handles the tennis court nets that don’t meet proper standards. She steps in when city soccer coaches don’t show up and addresses vandalism in city parks. Just this month, she had to order new flags to replace the ones at Veterans Memorial Park that were chopped down and stolen — just weeks before the Memorial Day service there.

Soon, she’ll channel those juggling skills into the management of the city’s records and communications.

“Holly will do anything for anyone,” said Donna Kinville, the current city clerk, who was elected to the office in 2001. “She’s very optimistic and a very team-oriented go-getter.”

As leader of the parks and rec department, Rees is a constant presence out and about in South Burlington.

“We’re like the spokespeople for the community outside of these walls,” she said. “But really the clerk’s office is the ambassador of the city at city hall.”

Kinville plans to retire this summer and will train Rees on the job, starting Tuesday, May 30. Rees will carry out Kinville’s term until Town Meeting Day next March, when city voters will decide whether or not she’ll stay in the position.

“She has this bubbly personality that people see,” Kinville said, “but people don’t see the back side of it, where Holly’s very meticulous, and she has got her standards and the ability to understand things and understand the complexity of how one decision affects the next. She has this very serious back side to her that a lot of people don’t see.”

At the start of her staff meeting that recent weekday, Rees asked, “What color describes you today?” Each team member named a color, and some had even brought charts to explain their choices.

Rees picked champagne pink. She said she felt effervescent, bubbly, excited and celebratory — she told her team about her promotion at the end of the meeting.

Another lighthearted question turned surprisingly serious: “Ice cream or creemees, and why?” An amusing debate ensued. Rees then moved into the more productive discussion. The team brainstormed plans and possible trouble spots related to upcoming events, including the Memorial Day service, the weekly SoBu Nite Out food truck gathering, lacrosse tournaments, track meets and Touch a Truck, when kids can get close to the city’s big vehicles.

Rees takes a weekly tour around South Burlington to inspect all of its parks. On a recent morning, she acted as tour guide, describing the history of each stop in great detail. She is particularly proud of Veterans Memorial Park because many local organizations have contributed to its features, including ice rinks, little free libraries and the memorial itself — representing community collaboration, she said.

“Community building has always just really been near and dear to my heart,” Rees said.

Rees grew up on Keari Lane, off of Spear Street, and now lives in the Laurel Hill neighborhood with her three high-school-age daughters, two of them twins.

As a camp counselor, Rees led the “playground programs” free summer activities in the mornings for kids to socialize. At the time, Rees wanted to become a physical education teacher. She played field hockey in high school and hoped to play in college. She went to University of Delaware for a year but, deciding she wasn’t ready for college, returned to South Burlington.

Soon after, Rees took a philosophy class at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester and loved it. The campus was close to home and her brother went to school there.

Rees graduated from Saint Michael’s college with a degree in philosophy, figuring she could do anything with the degree. She went to work as a resident services coordinator at Cathedral Square, which provides housing primarily for low-income seniors.

After she had her twins, Rees’ mother took care of them while she went to work. Just before the girls celebrated their first birthday, their grandmother developed carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists from bottle-feeding the babies at the same time. Her mother told Rees that can happen “with moms of twins.” Rees said she broke into tears and thought, “But I’m the mom of the twins,” she recalled. “I’m not spending enough time with my kids.”

That’s when she walked away from the job to focus on raising her children.

When her youngest daughter went to preschool, Rees returned to the workplace as a caregiver at Pillsbury Manor, a senior housing complex. One morning, while reading The Other Paper, she saw a job listing at the parks and rec department for a program supervisor. When she called about the position, her old boss from her camp counselor days, Tom Hubbard, answered the phone, she said. The department let her work evenings and weekends so she could stay home with her preschooler in the morning.

“It was great because I was able to feel like I could balance being a mom of young kids, and they grew up in an environment where they came to everything,” Rees said. “If we were short soccer coaches, I was on the soccer field. If we were short lacrosse coaches, I was on the lacrosse field. So they grew up engaging in every sport. Then, volunteerism became a big part of their lives.”

Rees’ oldest child, Rees Baker, recalled recently that his mother often talked about her job at home and incorporated him in her work duties. She’d run ideas by him and his friends about how to improve the parks, Baker said.

“There were definitely times where, if I wanted a ride somewhere, I’d have to go to a dog park meeting or go just to make sure all the basketball hoops are up and running the way they’re supposed to be,” said Baker, now 22.

She’s “very determined,” he added.

Rees already has plans to combine bits of her old job with her new one. At the dog parks that she currently oversees, for example, Rees said she might set up stations for dog license registration — which the city clerk handles — at the park entrances.

At first, Rees hesitated to apply for the city clerk position, because she enjoys meeting her South Burlington neighbors out in the world, she said. It gives her a strong sense of community.

On Town Meeting Day, though, she shadowed Kinville and gained greater insight into the clerk position.

“It was great to see people coming out — sometimes grandparents with their grandkids, or sometimes couples on a date — to come out and vote,” she said. It let her see her community, she said, “in a whole different way.”

Kaylyn Bills is a reporter with the Community News Service, a program in which University of Vermont students work with professional editors to provide content for local news outlets at no cost.

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