Sterling Heights

Nature center gets digital to connect residents, celebrate photography, during COVID-19

Recreation specialist Brenda Suchenek knew she was going to have to get creative if she was going to keep residents connected with Sterling Heights' Nature Center through COVID-19. The global pandemic meant that the usually busy center had to limit and alter its interactive programs and pivot to online engagement, something Suchenek and her team have embraced, and have witnessed the value of for their community.

"The biggest challenge for the nature center is reaching schools, scouts and seniors and letting them know, even though we have limited hours we are available to do virtual field trips," says Suchenek.

This season has been particularly isolating for residents, but the nature center found ways to interact in a digital format. One initiative was a Winter Sketchbook Doodle and Draw at home challenge, which saw participants as young as 6 years old to age 75 take on a daily task to draw for eight days.

Resident Tami Novara won first place in the Sterling Heights Nature Center's annual photography competition, displayed in a walk-by gallery this year. As well as core classes and field trips, this year online meet-ups with Detroit Zoological Society education specialists was one of the ways the center pivoted, providing virtual tours of the Detroit Zoo to learn about polar bears and penguins.

The most popular initiative this year, however, has been the launch of an annual photo competition. Amateur photographers living in Sterling Heights were encouraged to head outdoors in January to capture images of nature to compete in the project. Suchenek and her team set up a walk-by photo gallery by hanging the competition entries in their showroom, facing outside rather than in this year, and taking voter's choices to determine the winners. 

From the 39 images submitted, Tami Novara won first place, Jeff Ebaugh won second, and 15-year-old Madelyn Dudde, who hopes to become a professional photographer, won third. 

Jeff Ebaugh captured this image, earning second place in the Sterling Heights Nature Center's photo competition this year.

"We had over 80 people that strolled by the gallery," says Suchenek, who adds that the gallery encouraged families to get out and enjoy the season. "I overheard a few families mention how it was cool to have this view from the outside and after they voted some families were seen taking a walk through the park."

"I will definitely run the photo contest and walk by gallery next year, it wasn’t just a contest I wanted to just place on social media, this was connecting people with coming to the nature center to enjoy the gallery and the outdoors."

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is an award-winning freelance writer and journalism educator, currently based out of Detroit. She is the managing editor of Metromode and Model D. Contact her at