Rec-Connect program encourages culturally appropriate recreation in Bay Mills Indian Community

This article is part of Stories of Change, a series of inspirational articles of the people who deliver evidence-based programs and strategies that empower communities to eat healthy and move more. It is made possible with funding from Michigan Fitness Foundation.

Editor's note: Due to closures because of COVID-19, educators are moving SNAP-Ed programming to alternative learning platforms.


As coordinator for the Bay Mills Indian Community's Rec-Connect program, Amber Stephan says her job is to provide new physical activities for community members to try as a way to add more physical activity to their daily lives in addition to eating healthy.


"That means introducing them to an activity they may or may not have done before, and since we started, we've done at least 20 different physical activity demos," Stephan says. "Since we're from a tribal place, we brought in Native American dancing, too; fancy shawl dance, women's traditional, and jingle dress."

Bay Mills' 2019 "Honoring Our Veterans" powwow.

Those demonstrations of new physical activities are just one way the Rec-Connect program aims to inspire more physical activity as part of healthy living in the community in a culturally-appropriate way.


Rec-Connect works in coordination with nutrition education programs to increase physical activity among individuals served by the SNAP program by connecting them to low- or no-cost opportunities in their communities. The program is funded by Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) grants from Michigan Fitness Foundation (MFF). SNAP-Ed is an education program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that teaches people eligible for SNAP how to live healthier lives. As a State Implementing Agency for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, MFF offers competitive grant funding for local and regional organizations to conduct SNAP-Ed programming throughout Michigan.


Rec-Connect starts with a survey of what resources are already in place in the community and what the community needs are. In Bay Mills, the Rec-Connect program operates in partnership with Bay Mills Community College (BMCC).


SNAP-Ed funding allowed BMCC to survey community members, hire Stephan to promote healthy eating, coordinate various recreation and exercise programs in the community, work with community partners, and build capacity.


Brianna Gunka, land grant coordinator with BMCC, says the program has focused on getting the community involved in activity demonstrations, but also on making changes at the policy, systems, and environmental change level.


"We want to get to the root of the issues that prevent people from getting out and being active," Gunka says.


When BMCC first began working with MFF about a year and a half ago, BMCC conducted an assessment of community members' activity levels, what their interests were, and any barriers they saw to being active. That survey was followed up with a series of in-person focus groups.


"The interesting thing about Bay Mills is that we do have a lot of recreation resources in the community, like hiking right by the water, kayaking, canoeing, water sports, and a golf course," Gunka says. "In the winter, they turn the golf course into snowshoeing and cross-country ski trails."


The Spirit Stone Trail Committee is a key driver to improve the trails and pathways in Bay Mills. The committee has focused its work on creating a path that would allow residents to bike or walk safely from one end of the reservation to the other without having to encounter dangerous car traffic.


"The committee has been a really amazing resource. They've been working for years to get the funding to get the trail built," Gunka says.


Through her SNAP-Ed work, BMCC was connected with the committee as they completed engineering and design work for the trail. The Rec-Connect program supported the installation of kiosks along the trail that provide important pedestrian and bike safety information. The first phase is now complete, with more sections to be added in the future for a total of nine miles of trail.


To promote use of the newly completed trail, the community organized a 5K run, the Spirit Stone Shuffle, in October. Stephan says just over 30 runners and walkers came out for the 5K, which she hopes will be an annual event.
The women's first place winner at the Spirit Stone Shuffle.

"It was a chilly day, so we were happy to have had that many participants," Stephan says.


Although the community has many healthy eating and physical activity resources for Rec-Connect to build on, Gunka says people won't use them if they don't know about them.


"We have a lot of these wonderful recreational resources in and around Bay Mills, but they're not as visible as you'd like them to be," she says. "Through the Rec-Connect project, we developed a resource guide that addresses that and makes those more visible."


The guide has proven to be popular not only among the 800 residents of the reservation and roughly 1,200 tribal members living nearby, but also with others in the region who aren't part of the tribe.


The community produced an initial batch of 1,000 guides, and Stephan says there are plans to produce another 1,000.


The COVID-19 outbreak has created some barriers to running many physical activity programs, but the community is finding new ways to connect and be active.

Bay Mills' 2019 "Honoring Our Veterans" powwow.

"We've been talking about how we can provide content online in a virtual format that folks would really connect with," Gunka says about her planning with the powwow committee. "We started a discussion about the idea of a social distancing powwow."


The initial idea was to create some instructional videos about traditional dancing, drumming, and singing, but Gunka says the idea "evolved pretty rapidly into a community resource" with individuals sharing traditional teachings and wisdom, or "medicine."


"Seeing the community come together and share their culture in this difficult time is a beautiful thing," Gunka says. "We're working to identify dancers in the community and we're going to do instructional videos and post one each week."


"We've only gotten positive feedback from folks in the community who are excited about the educational resources we're putting out," Gunka says. She says they have been excited about activity demos and that the 5K was "well received."


"And as a direct result of the Rec-Connect project, we've developed recurring programming at the health and fitness center," Gunka says. "Folks are ecstatic about it.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.