Constantine Charalab, a master’s student in recreation administration at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, is the Illinois Park and Recreation Association’s Sponsored Student of the Year, chosen from hundreds across the state.
Just a few years ago, the Northbrook native said, he had no clue what he wanted to do with his life but now, he will be honored during the IPRA/Illinois Association of Park Districts “Soaring to New Heights” annual conference on Jan. 28-30.
“This award really means a lot to me. It will open a lot of doors for me,” Charalab said. “I’m a first-generation college student. I didn’t really do well in middle school or high school, but when I got to SIU, I blossomed. The recreation department has the most supportive people, and they are largely to thank for my success.”
Interestingly, Charalab came to SIU as an exploratory student, drawn to the university from northern Illinois because he wanted a slower pace and he loved the beautiful location and campus. “It was the best choice I’ve ever made,” he said.
During his first couple of years as a student, he took a variety of classes, checking out different majors and working with the Career Development Center. Eventually, he was connected to Tina Colson, senior lecturer and recreation professions program director.
“I talked to her, and it was like talking to my mom in the best possible way,” Charalab said.
He took a career exploration class and found his calling and passion – recreation.
“This major sounded so cool, and the minute I started the therapeutic recreation program, I was hooked,” he said. “It gave me the opportunity to express my interests, such as promoting well-being, and I get to help other people.”
Diverse undergraduate experience
Charalab completed his bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation last May. Along the way, he gained valuable experiences, fans and awards.
He got diverse practical experience doing field work at Brehm Preparatory School and The Landings in Carbondale while completing his undergraduate degree. That involved planning activities and meals, teaching life skills and much more, all with the goal of getting people active, involved and confident in themselves, according to Charalab and Colson. Many residents of The Landings became charmed with Charalab, Colson said, and couldn’t wait for his visits.
“He was very popular and charismatic during his undergrad placement at a local assisted living complex,” Colson said. “Residents flocked to him. He is just that kind of student who will go the extra mile as needed to make people happy.”
When the activity director position became vacant, Charalab even filled in for a time, overseeing activities for the more active crowd as well as the dementia unit, and he enjoyed his work helping the clients.
Charalab secured a final internship with the Waukegan Park District and the Special Recreation Department. He worked with the public, went into local schools, helped with program management, budgeting, Special Olympics and more. Initially unsure how beneficial the job would be, he found it a great, enriching experience enabling him to learn intricate details of park district operations and help further his career aspirations.
Charalab also won the William H. Freeberg Therapeutic Recreation Award in spring 2020 in recognition of his demonstrated commitment and leadership in the field. The award is named for a pioneer in the field who helped establish the national Special Olympics program with the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation and Camp Little Giant at Touch of Nature Environmental Center.
Taking it to the next level
Now, the young man who wasn’t so successful earlier felt empowered to take his dreams up a notch.
While pursuing his graduate degree, Charalab is also working as a teaching assistant for animal-assisted therapy and recreational therapy fitness as well as providing teaching assistance to therapeutic recreation faculty.
He said the support he’s received from Colson and the rest of the faculty and staff at SIU has been vital to him all along the way. In addition, Charalab expressed appreciation to his family, particularly his grandfather, Charles Theodore, for insisting he never give up and encouraging him go on to pursue his master’s degree.
Colson said it’s not surprising that Charalab spreads the credit to others.
“Constantine is very humble. He is focused and diligent in his academic study,” she said. “He is an outstanding student and a very good teacher. He’s really remarkable, and he has a really good connection to people.”
‘A future leader’
Debbie Trueblood, Illinois Park and Recreation Association executive director, proclaimed Charalab “a future leader in our industry” in announcing him Sponsored Student of the Year.
Typically, thousands of recreation professionals and students, along with vendors, from all over Illinois participate in the annual conference. Due to the ongoing pandemic, this year’s event is going virtual, so Charalab’s experience will also be a little different than the usual. He will have an individual mentoring session with Trueblood as she offers career assistance and networking, and he is spotlighted in the organization’s January newsletter.
“I have every confidence that Constantine will make an impact on Illinois parks and recreation once his career begins,” Trueblood wrote, in announcing his honor.
Colson said she’s proud of Charalab and pleased to note he is the second Saluki to receive the award since it was instituted in 2014. That year, Torri Withrow won.
Plans to serve
Charalab is on track to graduate in December and then plans to test to obtain his Certified Park and Recreation Professional credential. His goal is to then obtain employment within one of the state’s numerous park districts and eventually become a park district executive director.
“It will be my honor to serve a community and be able to provide them with the resources needed to live a happy and healthy life,” Charalab said.