By Laura Bohannon
Capital News Service
Michigan has plenty of scenic publically owned land, and the Department of Natural Resources is using its summer youth program to expose urban youth to parks and other recreational outdoor activities.
The DNR hopes the program will give kids from urban areas who aren’t typically exposed to outdoor recreation such as hiking, camping and fishing the chance to experience those options, develop new hobbies and explore career opportunities, Director Keith Creagh said.
He also said the DNR is focused on bringing some aspects of parks to urban areas to help diversify their user base.
Creagh also said the program brings kids to state parks and works to better the urban areas where they’re from, like cleaning up the Flint River.
The DNR tracks the success of these programs by tracking its participants, looking to see if participants have gone on to pursue a college degree or a job, Creagh said.
“As we try to diversify our user base and our employees, the best thing we can do is have successful programs in urban areas,” Creagh said.
The department’s summer program grew from concern about high crime rates in several cities, including Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and Pontiac, Creagh said. The employment program is an effort to improve the quality of life and provide exposure to parks and other outdoor activities.
Ed Golder, a public information officer at the DNR, said the 5-year-old program has built strong relationships with trusted agencies in the cities Creagh mentioned.
Golder said the program also brings kids to the Upper Peninsula.
The summer youth initiative has seen success, with the majority of its participants, who generally start the program around the age of 17, either attending college or being employed, Creagh said.
“I have examples in Flint where there’s at-risk youth cleaning up the Flint River,” Creagh said. “We put kids working arm in arm with plumbers and electricians and kids doing trail work. So it’s really a great effort and we’re highly supportive of it.”
The summer program exposes kids to parks and the natural environment “through a work cohort, get them recreating just a little bit in an environment they feel comfortable in,” Creagh said.
The Saginaw Bay Visitor Center has a program that acclimates kids to parks, hiking and other outdoor activities through employment.
“Some of them do work here in the visitor center. They rotate from job area to job area,” Saginaw Bay Visitor Center interpreter Valerie Blaschka said. “One day they might be at the campground, then the next day they’re down at the river access site. So they kind of rotate from activity to activity.
“I think it’s an awesome opportunity for them to feel comfortable in a state park situation, since most of them spent their entire life not going very far from their home in the urban area. I mean, they aren’t familiar with camping and hiking.”
Blaschka said an important aspect of the visitor center’s program is “getting them to understand this is their park and demonstrating to them this is a fun thing to do.”
Statewide, 3,870 young people have worked in the program and logged more than 638,000 hours of work during that five-year span, Golder said.
He said the program gives kids a feel for what state parks have to offer.
“As an example, the trips to Wilderness State Park give young people a chance to stay in cabins, engage them in work such as doing maintenance on trails or removing invasive species, then allow the youngsters an opportunity to swim or listen to park interpreters present programs,” Golder said in an email.
Blaschka said her office hopes that, after being introduced to the program, participants will seek further employment and other job opportunities related to natural resources.
“This is a way to get them to consider natural resource-based careers,” she said.