An Ahwatukee woman who is a Gilbert park ranger was honored for her work by Peacock, NBCUniversal’s new streaming service, and the network’s cast a long-running sitcom.
Park ranger Supervisor Jody Becker’s duties include everything from inspecting playground equipment for safety to chasing down pet bunnies left to fend for themselves at Gilbert’s Riparian Preserve.
And that service over 25 years won her kudos from Peacock’s Park and Rec stars and the National Recreation and Parks Association.
The special celebration recognized the real-life Leslie Knopes and Ron Swansons, characters in the network TV sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” which ran on network TV from 2009-15 and continues to be streamed on Peacock.
Becker and four other essential park workers around the country were each given a plaque and interviewed by Jim O’Heir, who portrayed Jerry Gergich, an employee of the Parks and Recreation Department in the fictional town of Pawnee in Indiana.
“I guess I am kind of mystified to some degree,” Becker said. “I don’t think I did anything that special but on the other hand if you look at the fact my guys had just as much responsibilities as me in all of this, I am really proud of my people. I really wished they could have been directly included.”
Though the Ahwatukee resident’s accomplishments are many, she is mainly credited with developing Gilbert’s park rangers.
When Becker was hired in 1996, she replaced one of two non-uniformed caretakers assigned to help with maintenance duties at the town’s major parks, which at that time included Freestone, Crossroads District, the first phase of McQueen Park and a handful of neighborhood parks.
Today, there are eight uniformed rangers tasked with protecting and securing the town’s nine major parks and 14 neighborhood parks and their amenities.
Despite several new parks coming on line, including the 272-acre regional park, Butler’s favorite remains Freestone near Lindsay and Guadalupe roads.
That’s where she started her career.
“The others were, ‘oh, a woman working at night, aren’t you scared,’” Butler recalled being asked at the time. “Freestone was the worst, the hardest one to do and I liked that because it was a challenge.”
At the time, Freestone had no sprinklers at the softball fields and so, at the beginning of her shift, Butler would have to water the grass by hand, lugging a heavy, water-filled hose from one field to the next.
Summers were the worst because the water would create an uncomfortable humidity as she stood there watering, according to Becker.
Because the town used treated wastewater for the parks, she would work her entire shift covered in mud and smelling of effluent, she said.
“It was great,” she said. “I loved it. It kind of reminded me about the old Army recruitment commercial, ‘We get more done before 6 a.m. than most people do all day.’ The work was kind of the same.”
Becker, who is a certified playground safety inspector, also oversees court-appointed community service and county crews, rescues and rehabilitates wildlife and work on graffiti abatement.
Becker was asked what she liked best about her job.
“It’s hard to choose between getting to rescue and being in contact and close up to the wild critters out there,” she said.
Another big appeal of the job is no one day is the same, she added.
“I might come to work and spend four to six hours on playground safety inspections and on the way from one to the next I may get a call to the Preserve to chase a pet (abandoned) there. You can’t leave them out there for coyote bait.
“People turn their domesticated pets loose in the Preserve and don’t understand they are handing them a death sentence.”
She’s rescued pet dogs, cats, bunnies, tortoises and iguanas from the Preserve and parks and turned them over to the appropriate rescue groups.
One aspect of the job she doesn’t particularly relish is using her enforcement powers when there are violations.
“It’s not our favorite thing,” she said, adding rangers preferred to educate the public for voluntary compliance.
Gilbert’s shut down of its park amenities in late March to stop the spread of the virus proved challenging for rangers.
“Everybody wanted to get out and everybody wanted to go to the parks,” Becker said. “We had to keep explaining to them this is why you can’t be here right now; you can’t all be in a dugout for your own safety.”
Becker also gives back to the community through a successful Junior Ranger program, she and her staff facilitate that educates 6- to 11-year-olds on the responsibilities of a park ranger. So far, 24 youths have completed the program.
Becker said she didn’t learn of the TV show until after its first season and soon became a fan.
When it comes to the show character she most identified with, Becker picked two – Amy Poehler’s Knope and Retta’s Donna Meagle.
Meagle, the office manager for the Pawnee Parks and Recreation Department, surprised people with things from her background like she served on a NASCAR pit crew and came in ninth in Italy’s Got Talent.
“I sometimes surprise my colleagues when they discover things I did before coming here,” Becker said. “I was in the Army, I used to jump out of airplanes and I used to fight fires.”
Knope is the main protagonist of the show and for most of its duration was the parks department’s deputy director.
“Leslie is really passionate about what she does and that is why I may identify with her to a degree because people tell me, ‘you’re like a Leslie,’” Becker said.
Becker said she was totally surprised by the award and didn’t realize she was even nominated for it.
She has received other recognition for her work. She was Gilbert Employee of the Quarter in 2001 and the Gilbert MVP for Innovation in 2014.
“Honestly, it’s not so much my own accomplishments but the thing I am most proud of is my team,” Becker told O’Heir during the interview. “A lot of the things I’ve been acknowledged for are things we, my entire team and I are responsible for.”
To see the video: youtube.com/watch?v=O9ppSPe8hxw&t=7471s