Local programs get minority and low-income kids into the great outdoors

Kids who get to experience and explore nature—on a trail or in a kayak, for example—reap benefits that go well beyond fresh air. Adventures in the outdoors can do wonders for young bodies and minds, but minority and low-income kids often lack access to the natural world.

Data from the National Park Service (NPS) and the Outdoor Foundation show that minorities are underrepresented in outdoor pursuits. In a survey about visiting national park units, 53 percent of whites surveyed said they had visited an NPS unit in the past two years; only 28 percent of blacks and 32 percent of Hispanics said they had.

In a second Outdoor Foundation survey that looked at the broad range of outdoor activities, people ages 6 and up who participated in outdoor activities were 74 percent  Caucasian, 9 percent African-American, 8 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Asian, and 3 percent other.

Many organizations throughout Metro Detroit are working to bridge this “adventure gap” and are finding ways to introduce minority youth to nature. This often means getting them to try things that might be unfamiliar.

Detroit Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO) is a community outreach program of the Sierra Club that offers wilderness experiences and environmental education, working mainly with the Fauver-Martin Boys & Girls Club in Highland Park. Almost all the youth it serves are people of color and/or low-income, says Garrett Dempsey, chair of the program. The group recently took its first ski trip, meeting up with the Jim Dandy Ski Club, the country’s first black ski club.

“It was amazing to observe our teens, who had hardly imagined themselves ever camping or canoeing a few years ago, let alone skiing, spend the day on a mountain with hundreds of other folks that looked like them,” Dempsey says.

Outdoor experiences can be transformative. If kids who have never gone camping before are apprehensive about it but then enjoy it, “it butts up against their own fears and stereotypes about what is possible,” says Kyle Macdonald, executive director and founder of Outdoors Empowered Network, an organization that works to get youth outdoors. “If you think, ‘My life is limited to these 10 blocks' and then you step outside your comfort zone and do something you’ve never done before, it’s empowering," he explains. “You might think, ‘I never thought I could do this—so maybe I can go to college. Maybe I can become a doctor.’”

Outdoors Empowered Network provides free “gear libraries” and training for adults who can then check out gear to use with groups of kids. The organization is working with Detroit ICO, the National Park Service in Detroit, the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit, and others to revive a campground in Detroit’s Rouge Park that once was a popular Boy Scouts site. Now, these groups want to make it a destination for local kids to go camping—many of them for the first time.

“When you see the Milky Way when you’re sleeping outside, you see that the world is a much bigger place than you ever imagined,” Macdonald says. Making kids aware that they can get outside requires “some cultural shift,” he says, but “these are public lands. They’re not just for kids with parents who already take them hiking or camping on the weekends.”

At the college level, many outdoor adventure leaders are trying to appeal to underrepresented minorities. John Swerdlow is senior assistant director of recreational sports at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “For myself and the trip leaders, the outdoors is such a powerful and wonderful part of our lives,” he says. “We want to share it with people who were not given that opportunity—who were not exposed to it for all kinds of social and cultural reasons.”

U-M Outdoor Adventures has created “intro to camping” trips in an attempt to appeal to first-time campers, but success has been limited so far, Swerdlow says. They are also working on offering a trip for incoming freshmen in the university’s Bridge Program, which prepares students from diverse populations to start in the fall.

Slowing down and opening up

In helping kids forge connections to nature, these groups are fighting so-called nature deficit disorder, a term that author Richard Louv coined to describe the physical and mental problems caused by a lack of connection to nature. The leaders of these youth programs often notice something shift in kids who get immersed in the outdoors.

“I see young people we work with just kind of slowing down,” Dempsey says. “They calm down when we get outside and focus on little things that they might not focus on inside.” He recalls a fifth grader attending Hawkfest at Lake Erie Metropark who was less excited about hawks than he was about the possibility of seeing a caterpillar. He was thrilled to find one, and Dempsey talked to him about it and helped him find a place to put it so it wouldn’t get stepped on. “He spent 30 minutes with that caterpillar,” he says. “Everything else disappeared for him.”

Not every outdoor experience needs to be a grand adventure to be meaningful—some kids only need the opportunity to be outside. The Huron-Clinton Metroparks started “Summer Fun at the Metroparks” last year, which brought about 3,100 Southeast Michigan residents to 13 Metroparks by bus from meeting spots in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw, and Livingston counties. Several community organizations participated, including social services agencies.

“Just to be in a park out in the open in a safe space is something some kids don’t ever get to experience,” says Jennifer Hollenbeck, the Metroparks' interpretive services manager.
Hollenbeck says one park employee recalled driving into the park in a bus full of kids. When they approached the trees, one said, amazed, “Wow! Are we going to the jungle?” and the rest of the kids lit up. “Many of them don’t experience a large number of trees in one space,” Hollenbeck says.  

The program’s many activities included hiking, seeing an eagle nest, and learning about trees. This year, Summer Fun will expand to include about 4,800 youth (plus 1,200 adults). The theme “Rivers of fun, connecting communities,” will teach participants about water quality and other water issues.

Merely arriving at a natural space opens up a whole new world for some kids, says Christina Funk, assistant naturalist at the Stage Nature Center in Troy. “Just seeing birds and squirrels is a big deal to them.”

The Stage Nature Center brings in school groups to teach them about nature, and it also runs a junior naturalist club. “For a lot of kids, it allows them to learn in a different way than they do in class,” Funk says. “It reaches kids with different learning styles.”

Access to nature

One of the challenges is getting people to realize that nature is nearby. Metro Detroit is full of parks and outdoor activities that residents might not realize exist. For example, the Stage Nature Center encompasses more than 100 acres. “We’re nestled in a very suburban area, and a lot of people don’t even know we’re here,” Funk says.

But even when people are aware, transportation is a common challenge. A recognition that many Metro Detroit residents lack transportation to parks is a main reason Summer Fun at the Metroparks got started, Hollenbeck says.

“Since we work with under-resourced communities, the ability to cover transportation costs is always a challenge,” Dempsey says. “This is one of the reasons we want to create more programming opportunities in Rouge Park because it will lower transportation costs for city groups.”

Last year, the NPS took every fourth grader in the Detroit Public Schools—about 3,800 of them—to Historic Fort Wayne for a day to learn about nature and the site’s history, including its part in the Underground Railroad. The NPS Ticket to Float Urban Youth Outdoor Kayak Explorer Program takes kids on a full-day field trip to River Raisin National Battlefield Park, where they learn about the Detroit and Huron Rivers’ cultural and natural legacies.

And the NPS Every Kid in a Park initiative gives every fourth grader and his or her family free access to public lands (in fee areas) for a year. Part of the impetus is “to engage a new cadre of public land stewards,” says David Goldstein, the NPS urban liaison for Detroit. He adds that this “family-level engagement” will make a difference.

Getting people to appreciate the outdoors is important for the land’s sake. “It’s our world. We need it to survive,” Funk says. “The less people get outside, the less they understand it, and the less likely they are to protect it.”

Dempsey agrees. These young people may well grow up to be “the next stewards of the outdoors,” he says, which might include “faraway parks and green spaces in their own neighborhoods.”

“The outdoors can be a lot of different things to different people,” Dempsey says. “It’s about introducing them to the outdoors and then letting them continue to develop that relationship on their own.”

Resources for getting low-income and minority kids to the outdoors
This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Allison Torres Burtka.

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor in Metro Detroit. You can view her online portfolio here.