Raised in Atlanta, a block away from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s home and the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Bernita Reese was a toddler when the world learned the news.
“Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence in the Civil Rights Movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee,” Walter Cronkite reported on April 4, 1968.
It was in that moment that Bernita’s calling to serve people from all walks of life began. A preacher’s daughter, she’s familiar with what it means to be “called.” She also believes the experiences of her youth and her family’s faith motivated her to serve.
“It is all about the people,” Bernita said. “I definitely have always felt an urge to help others. Just helping people of all ages and walks of life.”
In March 2021, Mayor Tommy Battle appointed Bernita director of the City’s Parks & Recreation Department. Her educational and real-world experiences speak for themselves – she earned her bachelor’s degree in recreation and park administration from Savannah State University in Georgia and her master’s in sports management from Western Illinois University.
She is currently pursuing her doctorate in Organizational Leadership through Franklin University in Ohio.
“Bernita brings more than 25 years of parks and recreation management experience and fresh ideas and perspectives to the City of Huntsville,” Mayor Battle said. “We look forward to seeing how she takes our Parks & Recreation Department to the next level.”
The love of a family
Bernita’s parents, Rev. Stewart Reese, Jr., and his wife, Navoria, moved from Seattle when she was an infant. The Reeses and their five children would eventually land in Atlanta.
“My father said he felt a calling to start a church,” Bernita said.
About a year after King’s assassination, Rev. Reese opened Bethesda Cathedral Church in Decatur, Ga. The church still stands today with Bernita’s older brother, Stewart Reese III, behind the pulpit.
“My parents began a legacy of love for its family and others,” she said.
She credits much of her personality and passion to her older brother, Bernie, who lived life with multiple physical and mental handicaps. Bound to a wheelchair for most of his life, Bernie’s experience helped shape his younger sister.
“It’s been 30 years since he passed,” Bernita said. “However, who he was then really opened my eyes in a way that allowed me to become compassionate to so many needs and so many different walks of life today.”
Ten years ago, her family’s legacy of love and giving moved Bernita to give back to her father.
“His kidneys were failing, and we were a match,” she said. “I asked the doctor if I would be fine with one kidney, and the doctor said, ‘Yes.’ So, six months later, we did the transplant.”
Rev. Reese, 83, and his wife, Navoria, 81, now live in Lithonia, Ga., and are doing well.
“I celebrate two birthdays for my dad,” Bernita said. “Feb. 22 is his actual birthday. Then, May 15, the day of the kidney transplant, is like a second birthday for us.”
A parks and rec kid
From the time she was in elementary school, Bernita had a connection with her neighborhood rec center in Georgia,
“I still remember being tossed in the Piedmont Park Swimming Pool over and over,” she said with a grin. “It was a different time and I was learning how to swim the hard way.”
A graduate of Columbia High School, Bernita was a member of the varsity basketball and track and field teams.
“All of that was spurred on by my days at the rec center,” she said, adding she and her friends would run and play basketball at the Mark Trail Recreation Center in DeKalb County, Ga. “It definitely led to my participation in student athletics.”
As I began looking for the right move for me, Huntsville quickly became the obvious choice.”
It wasn’t only rec department games that drove Bernita’s desire as a child. It was also the artistic side of recreating that piqued her curiosity during high school.
“A teacher of mine, Ida Boler Royal, got me involved with drama and the art of the world,” she said. “She had such a huge impact on me to the point that I even became an honors student in the International Thespian Society.”
With all those experiences under her belt, and a passion to work in either sports or acting, Bernita saw her first real experience in her 20s when she ran a sports camp for the Parks & Recreation Department in Sierra Vista, Ariz.
When longtime Huntsville Parks & Recreation Director Steve Ivey retired earlier this year, big shoes were left to fill.
After spending time as Assistant Director of Recreation and Parks for the City of Columbus, Ohio, Bernita wanted a challenge that would take her passion to the next level. She had just managed two major capital projects in the Buckeye State worth more than $40 million.
“Columbus was a great town and I couldn’t be prouder of the work done while I was there,” she said. “As I began looking for the right move for me, Huntsville quickly became the obvious choice. It’s just a very progressive town. I loved learning about the parks, the greenways and all the recreation options already in place. The idea of getting to take part and help make a change really excites me.”