A Publication of WTVP

You could say that Deborah Totten learned to manage employees from her mother, who led by example, expected a lot and trusted her five children to do what was best.

Totten applies what she learned at home, as well as at college (she has bachelor’s and master’s degrees), and her experience (she’s held leadership positions with the Peoria Park District since she was 14 years old) to her work as supervisor of the Community and Inner City Services department. As far as Totten’s mother, Margaret Gulley, is concerned, her daughter has turned out just fine.

Of course there was never any question that Totten would go far. “We were expected to do something with our lives,” she says about herself and her siblings. “When I was growing up, college was not an option, only a question of which one I’d be attending.”

And for Totten, who loved sports and dancing as a kid, deciding what to major in was simple—physical education. She chose Southern Illinois University for her undergraduate degree and stayed on for another year to work on a master’s degree in recreation administration. With only a few classes and a thesis to go, she’d had enough for a while and headed home to find a job. “My mother continued to ask me when was I going to finish my master’s degree.”

She landed a position as an outreach worker planning programs and projects for residents of Taft Homes and the surrounding neighborhood. The position was partially paid for by the Peoria Park District (PPD). “Little did I know that this job would begin my 30-year career with the Park District.”

Three years later, Totten became the program specialist at the PPD’s Proctor Recreation Center. “I returned to the very building where I started working when I was 14,” she recalls. Soon she was promoted to coordinator of community programs for the Peoria Park District, and then interim director of the Heart of Illinois Special Recreation Association, an organization funded by the Peoria and Morton park districts.

They say if you want to get something done, give it to a busy woman to do. In the midst of her responsibilities at work and raising her three children, Totten decided to finish her master’s degree.

Her thesis, “The Interests and Attitudes of African American Teens in Peoria Illinois,” led her to launch a program called Exercise the Right Choice, which won an Illinois Park and Recreation Association award. The program targeted high-risk teens, giving them an opportunity to work and learn about careers in the park, recreation and leisure fields. They were also eligible for assistance with college tuition. That was some time ago, however, and funding for her program only lasted through the mid-‘90s.

In her current position at the park district, Totten performs the usual managerial functions—planning and organizing, grant writing, recruiting and hiring, and drafting budgets—as well as implementing the park district’s scholarship program and creating collaborative opportunities with community agencies. She is also preparing the next generation of recreation administrators.

Totten expects a lot from her employees. “I ask for input and set goals and timelines with them so they stay on task and complete their projects in a timely manner. I try to make sure that I communicate information and changes to them.” Then she leaves them alone to do their jobs and trusts them to do their work well. “People have different strengths, talents and skills. I try to train them to be successful in their jobs. And I try to lead by example and give them the freedom to do it their way, as long as the outcome is what I expected. When it isn’t, well, we work on that.”

Besides working and raising her children, Totten serves on the board of the National Park and Recreation Association Ethnic Minority Society. She has been inducted into Peoria’s African American Hall of Fame Museum, named outstanding employee at the PPD, served as president of the Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority (whose members volunteer their services to non-profit organizations and award scholarships to high school seniors) and is a board member of Arts Partners of Central Illinois.

When relaxing, Totten sings. She’s a member of the Heritage Ensemble, whose next performance is January 19th at the Illinois Central College Theater. She also dances; in fact, she minored in dance in college and was a member of the University Repertory Dance Company. “Growing up,” she recalls, “I was the dancer in the family and taught all of the guys in the neighborhood how to do the latest steps.” At one time, she even considered a career in dance. “I asked my dance instructor if I was good enough to move to New York and make it as a dancer. He said ‘Yes, you are.’ I thought about it, but New York. The big city. Being alone and one of the starving artists I’d heard about…I determined to keep to my vision of being a teacher.”

“Now, when my one-year-old grandbabies—both girls—are visiting in Peoria, I make a point to dance. I put on some ‘old school’ music, pick each one up, twirl around, singing and just having fun.”

Two of Totten’s children, Casey and Chevonne, have graduated from college and begun their careers. Her youngest daughter, Madison Nicole, is a senior at her mom’s alma mater, Southern Illinois University, studying journalism. Totten is pleased. She says, “I’m a proud mother and I was raised by a proud mother.” TPW