This article is part of Inside Our Outdoors, a series about Southeast Michigan's connected parks, greenways, and trails and how they affect residents' quality of life. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance.
Friends of the St. Clair River
, a small, grassroots nonprofit with just a handful of paid staff, has an ambitious mission: to inspire citizen action through monitoring, education, and stewardship of the St. Clair River and its watershed. But Sheri Faust, president of Friends of the St. Clair River, says the organization wouldn't be able to make the impact it does without its "army" of volunteers.
"They're our boots on the ground, hands in the water, feet in the mud," she says.
And while Friends of the St. Clair River's volunteers number in the hundreds, they're still just a fraction of the many volunteers who help maintain, program, and advocate for parks and trails throughout Southeast Michigan.
Bill Bialkowski, who volunteers with the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy
, worked as an accountant throughout his career. In retirement he wanted to do anything but that. For the past six years he's joined the conservancy's efforts to activate the Detroit Riverwalk, doing everything from running snack tables to offering rides in golf carts.
"I've been told by many people, 'Were you a teacher? Are you a priest?' I say, 'I was the opposite. I was an auditor. That's why I'm doing this,'" Bialkowski says. "Everyone likes a volunteer."
"It's great to have that much dedication"
Dennis Delor, Jr., who oversees volunteers for the St. Clair County Parks and Recreation Commission, has worked closely with Friends of the St. Clair River. He notes that groups like Faust's play an invaluable role in the county's land stewardship.
"Our parks staff, we're limited," says Delor. "To have groups that go out almost every weekend and cut back overgrowth and clean trail paths, help with sign development [and] mapping ... it's great to have that much dedication."
In fact, Friends of the St. Clair River owes its very existence to dedicated volunteers. After the organization was originally founded in the '90s, it petered out. Then, in 2007, a new group revived it. Over the last decade, they've been able to make substantial efforts at remediating and activating the waterfront for recreation.
St. Clair County spans 837 square miles, and Friends of the St. Clair River keeps an inventory of the natural resources across that landscape, training and recruiting volunteers to monitor ecosystems and record data. One of the organization's most popular programs is a butterfly monitoring network. By identifying butterflies and learning about their populations, volunteers are able to gauge the health of the environment.
Melissa Kivel, Friends of the St. Clair River restoration coordinator, tags a monarch butterfly by carefully applying a small, lightweight sticker to its wing.
"When people ask, 'Is the St. Clair River safe to drink? Is it safe to go swimming in? Is it safe to fish?' we've been able to document that with tangible, data-driven work to answer those questions," Faust says.
Delor notes that volunteers become stakeholders who advocate for the parks. He has watched children grow up over the years as their families participated in the county's popular adopt-a-trail program, and marveled at the long-term impact of having an elementary school tend its own section of pathway.
"That's 250 kids on the trails," Delor says. "They keep it beautiful, and it's a great educational tool for them as well."
In addition to individual volunteers, Delor's department works with organizations ranging from the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts to corporations and utility companies who want to engage their employees in service projects. In recent years, avid mountain bikers have played a particularly unique role.
"We have mountain bike trails at Columbus County Park and Woodsong County Park that have been exclusively designed, improved, and maintained by volunteers," says Delor.
His department also works with volunteer groups who can offer unique expertise, including master gardeners, garden clubs, and naturalists as well as Friends of the St. Clair River.
"They do a lot of large-scale invasive species removal," Delor says. "They advocate for the area. They're providing guidance [to us] in some ways because they're trained in that [area]."
"I'm pretty proud of how you can see the results of our work"
Doreen Kephart has served as a volunteer board member for Friends of the St. Clair River for three years. Her favorite part of the job? Learning how to identify and weed out invasive species like Japanese barberry.
"I'm pretty proud of how you can see the results of our work," says Kephart, who works as an HR and recruitment specialist when she's not volunteering with Friends of the St. Clair River. After learning about the harm invasive species cause, she took an online course from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to learn more.
"I have always been interested in science, but I never took my career in that [direction]," Kephart says. "So Friends provides me an outlet to be as 'sciencey' as I want to be and just pull weeds and do manual labor, which is one way of refreshing and cleansing when you work a desk job. But I also get to pursue more education."
Now she pulls invasive species out of the parking lot at her work, and has even gotten her friends to take up the cause as well.
One of Bialkowski's fellow volunteers at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Elena Nuno, notes that volunteer work is a two-way street. Not only do volunteers steward the riverfront, but the community that has evolved through their input looks after them too.
"They had weekly phone calls during the entire pandemic, just checking in on us. [Detroit Riverfront Conservancy Volunteer Manager] Renée Rodriguez was constantly asking if anyone needed anything — rides to the doctor, groceries, anything. I just thought, an organization like that? That's something I want to be a part of," says Nuno.
While volunteers were told they were under no obligation to serve during the pandemic, activities on the waterfront continued, and those who did turn out were armed with appropriate protective gear.
"This past winter, through the pandemic, they were able to offer winter programming. It was fantastic. We were at [Robert C.] Valade Park [in Detroit] and they had live music during the pandemic. That
was amazing," recalls Nuno. "We were all required to wear a face mask. I really felt like they took care of us."
"To me, as a Southeast Michigan person, the thrill I get out of [volunteering] is that it kind of symbolizes the resurgence of Detroit," Bialkowski says. "You're outside, you're on the river in most cases, and you're seeing Canada. Everyone who comes down there is usually in a good mood, and you get in a good mood because of the beauty and the oxygenated air and the international border."
Similarly, back in St. Clair County, Faust says her organization's work helps communities find added economic and social value by giving residents access to outdoor recreation opportunities.
Friends of the St. Clair River Restoration Coordinator Melissa Kivel and volunteer Barb Ford examine a plant to determine if it is an invasive species.
"We know that all stakeholders win, like residents and community leaders, when they take pride in providing access to healthy rivers and green spaces," she says – and volunteers help make it happen.
Jeanne Hodesh is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, where she covers small business, food, and culture. She holds an MFA from Hunter College. Her essays and articles have appeared in Lenny Letter, The Hairpin, and Time Out New York, among other publications.
Photos by Liz Fredendall.