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A headshot of Sue Mills against the backdrop of the Patriarche Park pickleball courts.

Patron in the City: Sue Mills

We believe that passionate individuals can spur change in their communities. We refer to those individuals as Patrons in the City, dedicating their time, sweat, and tears to building vibrant communities.

In January 2022, Sue Mills led the Patriarche Park Pickleball Association in East Lansing, Michigan, to launch the crowdfunding campaign East Lansing Patriarche Park Pickleball Renovation Project. Revamping the existing structures would cement Patriarche Park as a gathering place for everyone in the community, uniting it with other park features relevant to all ages. Their goal was to remove six 50-year-old existing pickleball courts and replace them with one new tennis court and ten new pickleball courts that were up-to-date on electrical and fencing and paired with an equipment shed.

The Patriarche Park Pickleball Association is a 501c(3) nonprofit formed in 2021 to encourage the development of and participation in recreational pickleball in East Lansing, specifically through education, maintenance and development or redevelopment of courts and facilities, community engagement, and raising funds for pickleball opportunities and needs.

Partnering with The City of East Lansing's Department of Parks, Recreation and the Arts, the Patriarche Park Pickleball Association came together to redevelop the pickleball courts at East Lansing’s Patriarche Park. The expansive project received a $300,000 grant and $200,000 in additional funding from the City of East Lansing, but that still wasn’t enough to help complete this new sports complex.

Sue’s team launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise $50,000 to finish the redevelopment of the pickleball courts. When they raised even more than their goal, coming in at $54,633, they received a matching $50,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s (MEDC) Public Spaces Community Places program.

Once the Sports Court Complex was completed, Sue and her team launched a second Patronicity crowdfunding campaign to fund a shade structure at the pickleball courts. This campaign, midway through its 6-month window, seeks to raise $40,000 to purchase and install the new shade structure.

At Patronicity, we believe that passionate individuals can spur change in their communities. We refer to those individuals as Patrons in the City, dedicating their time, sweat, and tears to building vibrant communities. We recently spoke with Sue to learn more about her passion for pickleball and how she serves as a Patron in the City.

Nine people in athletic clothing posing with pickleball paddles in front of the sign for Patriarche Park in East Lansing.
Patriarche Park, where Sue’s team worked to crowdfund for pickleball court renovation.

Patronicity: Tell us about yourself!

Sue: I was born in Lansing, MI, and have lived in the greater Lansing area my entire life. I have two brothers and a sister. Our parents were very active in the community, and all of us have continued the family tradition to volunteer in the communities in which we reside and to work to make them a better place in which to live, work, and raise a family.

I attended Michigan State University where I was a cheerleader and played on the MSU Women’s Tennis team. I have been involved with sports my entire life. I majored in Speech and Drama and graduated with a Master’s Degree in Speech Education. I met my husband while playing in a tennis tournament and we were married the week following my college graduation. I taught 9th grade Speech and Drama for three years and then settled down to raise our family, a boy and a girl.

As a stay-at-home mom, I joined the Junior League of Lansing, an all-volunteer organization which trains young women in leadership skills, and then offers these trained women opportunities to go out and use their skills in leading community projects. I did not work outside the home and was a full-time volunteer until our children were in high school. I was elected President of the Junior League in 1974 and the League voted to give substantial dollars that we had raised to convert a car dealership into a small Center for the Arts. I was asked to serve on the Founding Board of the facility and 10 years later I was asked to assume the role of Executive Director, which I did for 23 years until I retired in 2005.

I continued to actively compete in tennis as did my husband, and our children were very athletic, thus I blended sports and art in my life. Working in the arts involved a lot of fundraising and between my Junior League skill training in organizational and fund development and my on-the-job learning experience in fundraising as director of an arts organization, and as a person who was learning the sport of pickleball, I was a perfect person to get involved in the development of the Patriarche Park Pickleball Association. I retired at age 65 in 2005 and have continued to volunteer in many areas in my church and my community.

Patronicity: Where do you live, and what do you love about it?

Sue: Following college graduation and marriage, my husband and I bought a home In East Lansing. He is now deceased, but I am still in East Lansing even though all our children and grandchildren live out-of-state. I LOVE living in a college town. The sports and culture can’t be beat. There is a wonderful blending of people of all ages, races, and religions. Teaching and working with 9th graders in speech and drama was so free, so creative, and such fun. In my stay-at-home mom years, I was heavily involved in the schools and community activities, and for 23 years serving as Director of the Arts Council of Greater Lansing and Manager of the Center for the Arts was always challenging, yet fun.

Patronicity: What was our crowdfunding campaign for? What started it, and why is this project so important in the community?

Sue: Our crowdfunding campaign was to raise funds to provide state-of-the-art additions to a proposed pickleball complex at Patriarche Park, the largest city park in East Lansing.

Being physically fit at age 75 and being a former tennis player, I decided to try the new sport that was springing up in East Lansing called pickleball. We carried our own nets, set them up on 50-year-old cracked tennis courts at the park, taped the lines, and played.

We approached the city about building new pickleball courts. The city developed plans and submitted a grant to the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund and they were successful in receiving some funding. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department then invited a few of us pickleball players to review the plans and give input. The basic plans were nice, but to meet the growing demand the players suggested building 10 courts rather than eight, and for safety reasons to enclose each court with 4-foot fencing to prevent balls rolling onto other courts during play, and to provide a walkway between the courts to make them more accessible. The city told us if we could raise $100,000 they would incorporate our suggestions into the plan.

Patriarche Park has long been a gathering spot for the community. At one end of the park there is a large children’s interactive play area. There is a Rotary Pavilion, public restrooms, and recently upgraded baseball diamonds.

Now, with the completion of this project, there is this new area at the other end of the park which is called Sports Court Complex, with 10 pickleball courts, one tennis court, and a full-court basketball court with six baskets. These latest additions complete a true community space now with activities for families, school-age kids, college students, and adults of all ages.

Patronicity: What have been the results of your crowdfunding campaign?

Sue: The first result is that it got the group of pickleball players organized. In order to be eligible to apply for and receive grant funds, we formalized an organization, created a board of directors, wrote Articles of Incorporation, created by-laws and obtained IRS 501c(3) not-for-profit status. As one of the board members, based on my prior fundraising experience, I volunteered to head up Fund Development.

We launched our campaign and very quickly attained our goal of $50,000 to match the MEDC grant. In my experience, matching funds have always been the easiest funds to raise. There has also been an after-effect. Those donors who gave came to see what could be done if we worked together. Funds have continued to come in for other amenities we pickleball players want in order to make our pickleball courts some of the best in the state.

Patronicity: Did the crowdfunding campaign help to expand your organization’s network and connect with your community?

Sue: Most definitely! We had excellent publicity when we kicked off the campaign and throughout the campaign, including great newspaper and TV coverage. Since the courts opened, they have been featured on radio and TV specials. Based on the activity on the courts, participation by residents has increased dramatically. We work very closely with the Department of East Lansing Recreation and Arts, our Community Center and the Prime Time Senior Group, to name a few.

Patronicity: How has the community responded to the project?

Sue: Since our official grand opening, the use of the courts has been fantastic. With 10 courts split four and six, we can have two levels of open play going continuously. Some mornings we have all courts filled with 40 players and 20 more waiting to rotate into play. We are also seeing families starting to come to play together, as the sport is adaptable for all ages and abilities, and with the fencing around each court, children and seniors who can’t control the ball as well aren’t constantly interrupting others’ play. Young adult TGIF groups gather on Friday nights for pickleball and now there is a pickleball club at the high school.

Sixteen people from Sue’s crowdfunding team stand in behind a red ribbon spanning the opening of a large pickleball court
The ribbon cutting ceremony for the renovated Patriarche Park Pickleball Courts

Patronicity: If someone wanted to become more involved in their community, what advice would you give them?

Sue: First, determine your own interest and what you enjoy doing. Look for organizations in your community that provide opportunities in your areas of interest. And finally, raise your hand and volunteer. And don’t be afraid to lead.

Patronicity: What advice would you give to other communities considering a similar project?

Sue: Think of things that would make your community a better place to work, live, and raise a family. Gather others around you with similar interests. Research your community to identify community organizations or community leaders with whom you could work who would be able to help you reach your goal, and then, GO FOR IT!

3-4 people play pickleball in each of several pickleball courts. The walkway between the courts is crowded with spectators, athletic equipment, and bags.
Players are utilizing 6 of the 10 courts renovated through Sue and her team’s Patriarche Park Pickleball Renovation project.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

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