How Two Women Revolutionized Recreation in Sunny Isles Beach
For the past 10 years, Pelican Community Park (PCP) offers a haven for the Sunny Isles Beach community to bond socially, grow culturally, and participate recreationally. Following its grand opening in August 2008, PCP shortly became the center of the City; the hub for all that is recreation, athletics and community engagement. This transformation was made possible by the vision and hard work of two dedicated and determined women: Susan Simpson and Sylvia Flores.
It was a little more than 19 years ago when Susan Simpson began planning cultural events for the Sunny Isles Beach senior population as a part-time program coordinator. Shortly after, Susan became the director of what we now know as the Cultural and Community Services department. She soon realized she needed some assistance to accomplish greater goals for the City.
Enter Sylvia Arias, now Flores. Fresh out of college with drive and hunger to make a difference, Susan hired Sylvia as a senior office assistant in 2002. Recognizing Sylvia’s talent and worth, Susan quickly promoted Sylvia to program coordinator, where they worked to implement more programs, grow the City’s summer camp, and create 11 beautiful parks. Though she only intended to stay in Sunny Isles Beach temporarily, Sylvia found her passion for community recreation and has spent the last 16 years enhancing the City’s parks, recreation, and cultural programs.
“Sylvia brought in a fresh attitude and eagerness to everything we did together,” says Susan. “She did not have any preconceived notions, which allowed us the opportunity to create and build this department from scratch.”
When Susan was promoted to Assistant City Manager in 2017, overseeing the Cultural and Community Services and Public Works departments, the choice for her successor was natural. Now as the CCS director, Sylvia leads a team of 100 employees, most of whom are located at Pelican Community Park.
Throughout the last decade, the 25,000 square feet of Pelican Community Park housed youth, adult and senior programs, athletics, after school care, camps, and several popular special events. But the two women remember when PCP was merely an empty dirt lot. They still recall renting space from St. Mary Magdalen Church and Temple B’Nai Zion for summer camp and assembling a hoop in the parking lot of the church for the basketball program.
As the City’s demographic shifted with the influx of families with young children, a need arose for a community center with quality programs and offerings. Ten years ago, Susan worked with a committee planning the creation of parks in Sunny Isles Beach and was tasked with developing Pelican Community Park and building the facility from the ground up. With Sylvia by her side, the two were unbeatable. No problem was too big; no hurdle too high. Pelican Community Park grew and provided the world-class level of community programming that was demanded.
“We hit the ground running. From the very first soccer program to walking club for seniors to bingo, we started everything,” says Susan. “Anything that was a community want or need, they looked to us and we made it happen.”
Susan and Sylvia are responsible for implementing the City’s free SIBshuttle services for residents. They cultivated a sophisticated parks and recreation department and are now planning to open another public facility since Pelican Community Park is so successful.
For both Susan and Sylvia, connecting with residents is an important part of their positions. Government work can sometimes be a thankless job, but the interactions with SIB residents are what propel meaningful change. Whether positive or negative, community feedback is imperative for good government, and Susan and Sylvia welcome any and all dialogue.
Each woman has achieved incredible milestones throughout her time with the City of Sunny Isles Beach. For Susan, building the Pelican Community Park team is what she is most proud of. Beginning with her first hire, Sylvia, and moving forward, she crafted a dedicated group of people who believe in what they do and adapt to new challenges and projects.
“We work in an environment where there is constant change,” says Susan. “Every day brings something new; new projects, new challenges, and new solutions; and our team is always up for the task.”
Making a difference in the community is why Sylvia first started here, and what keeps her coming back every day. She sees teens who volunteer at Booogie by the Beach, parents with their kids at the playground after school, seniors mastering the art of Tai Chi, and she feels they are enjoying a better quality of life because of PCP’s programs and services.
“Every day is a different experience,” says Sylvia. “We are constantly evolving with what the residents are looking for and what the Commission is looking for. I enjoy growing with that process and learning how to better meet other people’s needs.”
Though challenging, and occasionally trying, the two could not imagine any other life path. Both Sylvia and Susan serve as mentors to their employees, often motivating their teams to do better and work harder to achieve their goals.
“I owe my accomplishments to Susan and Sylvia,” says Kathy Fernandez, Media Manager for the City of Sunny Isles Beach. “They helped me find my passion, mentored me, and allowed me to grow professionally and personally.”
But the two have accomplished more than just professional feats at Pelican Community Park. Working at PCP brought Sylvia out of her shell and taught her invaluable leadership skills. Susan formed life-long friendships and made cherished memories. Susan even introduced Sylvia to her husband, and they now have a beautiful daughter together. She even attends SIB Summer Camp each year.
The pair of inspiring women have worked together throughout the last 10 years to transform Pelican Community Park into the place where everyone in Sunny Isles Beach can go to feel connected to the community. Leveraging their vision, resolve, and expertise, Susan Simpson and Sylvia Flores collectively revolutionized recreation in Sunny Isles Beach.