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Santee On the Job: The Lady at the Lakes

Cindy Smith grew up exploring Santee Lakes and now plays a big role in the park's operations.

When Cindy Smith refers to herself as an “adrenaline junkie,” an explanation is in order.

She doesn’t jump out of planes, climb the Himalayas or ride a skateboard in movies with “Jackass” in the title.

The thrill ride she’s hooked on is the constant churn of activity in her job at , where she’s one of two park and recreation supervisors.

“I don’t skydive, or anything like that,” she says with a laugh. “I just mean I need stimulus. I need different things happening so I can deal with the little problems that come up.”

It’s the stuff that makes every one of her days different: the emergencies, the new faces, the busy holidays, the new ventures and the buzz that comes from working in a place with a . The park received about 650,000 visitors this past year.

“It’s never the same every day,” says Smith, 59. “I love that it’s busy. There’s the same duties we do, of course… but there’s something new every day.”

One day, it might be dealing with a dog bite. The next, the return of longtime “snowbird” campers she’s come to know during her 16 years at the lakes. Or it might be helping a family arrange a party or preparing for the crowds on the Fourth of July or managing the attention that comes from a new venture, such as the opening of ten in April.

Always, she says, there’s something going on.

“It’s busy, but fun,” she says. “The thing is, everybody wants to be here. Nobody is here because they have to be here. They’re happy campers. Literally.”

Diving into the lakes

Smith, who grew up in Santee and now lives in El Cajon, was a stay-at-home mom for several years as she and her husband, Mark, owned and ran their own business. But as her kids got older, she wanted to dive back into the work force.

So, after working as a volunteer for a number of causes while she was raising their two children, she applied for an open, part-time position at Santee Lakes. It was a 24-hour-per-week gig that eventually turned into a full time position when an employee left.

Suddenly she found herself doing exactly what she wanted at a place that she and her used to visit all the time when she was young.

She liked the idea of working in recreation. Not the child-care type of recreation where she’d be leading a finger-painting class or teaching swimming, but a larger-scale job where she could help the park improve on its status as a magnet for local residents and out-of-area visitors.

As park and recreation supervisor, Smith is in charge of  “inside” operations; Bryan Hague, the other park and recreation supervisor, is in charge of “outside” operations, such as landscaping, maintenance and the large and volunteer programs.

In her role, Smith supervises seven employees and oversees campground, cabin and picnic reservations, visitor check-ins, daily bank deposits, the park store, marketing, the website, special events – such as this – and the rental of 320 RV storage sites at the park.

Most of her focus is aimed at campground and reservations, the park’s two biggest revenue generators. Because the park must be , Smith says those areas – “our cash cow” – need her constant attention.

“We strictly run on what we generate,” she says.

And, now , Santee Lakes – operated by the - is generating record revenues, about $4 million this past year. The 190-acre park encompasses seven lakes, campgrounds, playgrounds, picnic areas and and is a destination for both overnight campers and local day-users who , picnic or just want to take a long walk.

“Every time people come back, they say ‘You’ve done something new,’ “ said Smith. “It all stays right here.”

A longtime relationship

In a way, Smith and Santee Lakes have grown up together.

Her parents moved to Santee in 1960, a year before the park’s birth, when Cindy was just 8. She says her parents were original homeowners in the first development off Fenway Road, almost adjacent to the park.

“We used to come here all the time,” says Smith, who attended Elementary School and .

The area was a great place to grow up, and she loved getting out to , especially the .

“I think the biggest reason my parents came here is they were from the Midwest and they were looking for that type of environment for us, and old Mission Gorge was the only way in or out,” she says. “So this was country. Really, really country.”

Even today, Smith likes to get out into open spaces, as a . Often, she’ll take a break from work, plug into her iPod and take off on a power walk on the paths that loop through what she says is “a beautiful place to work.”

It can be a nice release from her least favorite part of her job– the paperwork.

“Anything that takes me behind the scenes, the paperwork kind of things,” she says, takes her out of that “adrenaline junkie” mode.

But a walk through the park, where she can see what’s going on and what people are up to, can help remind her what she’s doing for what has become an important part of the community.

She sees the kids riding their bikes, young anglers, picnickers and couples enjoying what the park has to offer.

She says it has a “huge” role in Santee.

“It’s a very, very safe environment,” she says. “And for $20, people can get in the park, rent a paddleboat, buy some steaks and throw them on the grill here and spend the entire day. So, it’s really .”

With a 50th anniversary, the new cabins and a new park director coming on board later this summer, Smith says there’s a lot going on with Santee Lakes right now. It’s a busy time.

Which, of course, is just the way she likes it.

Daz Paris July 08, 2011 at 08:31 PM
$4m in RECORD PROFITS this year at the Santee Lakes and they still will not "GIVE BACK" to the Santee residents with Lake entry discounts as they did in their growth years. For Shame, greed and profit is better than COMMUNITY.....
Bill Pommering July 09, 2011 at 03:23 PM
In the early years, Santee Lakes was supported by income paid for by ALL Padre Dam Customers. This was changed over ten years ago. Today, Santee Lakes is self-supporting and there are no ratepayer or taxpayer subsidies made to the Park. If the Park does not generate enough income on its own, there is no one standing there to make up the difference. More importantly, there is a tremendous difference between "revenue" and "profits." Santee Lakes generated a revenue of $4 million -- that was income. All expenses to operate the Park come out of that amount just like for any business. What was left over after expenses, is being put back into the Park for improvments. These are what bring people back into the Park year after year and keep the Park updated. Santee Lakes does indeed give-back to the Community -- hosting and sponsoring events each year: not only within the Park but at other places throughout Santee. Santee Lakes is a VERY good community citizen and everyone should be proud of the efforts of the Staff at Santee Lakes.
Matthew carlin January 04, 2012 at 03:19 AM
Hi. Im just like her. Actually exactly like herive talked to cindy a lot. I see her at santee lakes all the time working her butt off. I am almost 16 and really want to get a job there. I go there typically twice every weekend when I'm off school. And every other day in the summer. I fish all the time. Santee lakes is my home in the summer. I'll wake up at 6 in pitch black and ride my bike 3 miles from Santana just to go there and get that spring bite. It's how I've grown up and i (from my perspective) have had one of the best childhoods that you can get. This area is filled with great people all working to put a smile on someones face and help nature. And sure. Maybe makin some money along the way isn't bad;)
Motivated Santee Citizen January 04, 2012 at 05:11 AM
Please use some of that record profit to finally asphalt the last section of the dirt road on the back side of lake #2 and #3. It really sucks to be jogging and some idiot flys by on the dirt road and dusts everyone out! Asphalt prices are at record lows right now. The perfect time to complete the road.

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