Retiring youth services director Papania stresses quality, community

For Gwen Papania, the director of Youth Services, Chautauqua has always been her “happy place.”

That won’t change after she leaves, she said.

After more than a decade at Chautauqua Institution, Papania has decided to step down from her position and retire. She said that, although she will miss her fellow staff greatly, what some might think as an end is a new step for her — a “re-birth,” as she calls it.

But Papania isn’t heading off without leaving an impression.

After 20 years as a teacher and owner of a private business, Papania joined the Chautauqua staff in April 2000 as assistant to Jack Voelker, the former director of Recreation and Youth Services. Papania became director of Youth Services in 2012 after Voelker’s retirement. Departmental restructuring at the same time saw youth programming moved under the auspices of the Department of Education. Since then, Papania said, she’s steered the youth programming in a way with which she — and many others — has been very pleased.

According to Matt Ewalt, associate director of education and youth services, her work was “all about relationships” and her sense of community, such that “one may never question her devotion” to fellow staff. Ewalt will assume Papania’s responsibilities following her departure.

“There are few people on the grounds whose heart is in the work more than Gwen’s,” he said. “And it’s never been about her … as so much of her work has gone under the radar. And that’s very much who she is.”

Papania said that rather than taking center stage, she’d prefer to focus the spotlight on matters larger than her: the visibility of youth activity at Chautauqua.

Following Voelker’s lead, Papania aimed to bolster little Chautauquans through “teaching them how to be audience members.” Because of this, she said, the Family Entertainment Series is what she’s most proud of. “Quality” showmen, the visual arts, puppetry and vaudeville acts were all part of her modus operandi. She made it her duty to weed out the “high school auditorium” entertainment to ensure the Chautauquan reputation mattered in the younger departments.

The younger generation, for her, was just as important as the older.

And Papania spread this importance around equally. She made sure she spent time shadowing open houses at the Children’s School, working alongside Al Dibs at the Youth Activities Center and Greg Prechtl at Boys’ and Girls’ Club. A part of Papania’s structured, organized approach to directorship was keeping tabs on the revelry at the Pier Club, the camp carnivals and Water Olympics and the “American Bandstand”-like performances at the YAC.

She accepts all her praise humbly, even near the end of her tenure as director.

The Children’s School staff threw Papania a retirement party, with the Group 1 kids gifting her a dog-paw chain (she is an avid animal lover). Members of Boys’ and Girls’ Club gave her a painting of Chautauqua that now hangs over her fireplace in her home in Fredonia — a memento of her “happy place.”

Ewalt said that, although Papania’s set to hand in her season gate pass, she’ll still be a part of programming to some extent.

“Gwen may be retiring at the end of the summer, but her presence is here in terms of conversation,” he said. “She’s made it very clear that she cares deeply about youth programming after she leaves. It’s then an obligation that I have to live up to these expectations.”

Although Papania, at age 60, said she’ll miss her work at the Institution, she’s also ready for another chapter in life. Reprieve from 10-hour days will allow her to spend more time gardening, organizing a long-overdue recipe book and tending to her two rescue dogs. It’s a new way, she said, to fulfill her role as “nurturer,” something necessary for someone who has worked as an educator for four decades.

But it will still be a tough transition.

“It’s very hard to let go to the people I’ve worked with, my staff, who are now my personal friends,” she said.

As the leaves begin to change and Chautauqua enters another period of rest, Papania wants to make clear that she’s not entering a “closing chapter” in life, but just transitioning with her usual positivity. If anything, Papania said, after so much put into the Institution — and the residual stress — she’s ready for an opportunity to see the “many lives” of Chautauqua from a more casual, relaxed point of view.

She got a taste of this recently when she and her husband, Jon Espersen, around the Institution as “guests,” watching boats dock around the pier and kids run around the YAC. It hit her while they sat in the Amphitheater watching the Saturday evening entertainment what retirement can offer.

“Next season I’ll be able to finally experience Chautauqua as a Chautauquan,” she said.