In Grand Rapids, approximately 34 percent of city residents, which includes 17,000 youths, do not have access to a park located within a 10-minute walk. Moreover, there is a lack of green space in communities of color. As a result, the Outdoor Industry Association
, whose goal is to increase participation in outdoor recreation, recently invested $1.8 million toward the Thrive Outside Community Initiative
taking place within four cities across the nation: Grand Rapids, Atlanta, Oklahoma City, and San Diego.
In April, The City of Grand Rapids was granted $410,000 of the total funding to launch a city-wide program that will encourage youth to engage with the outdoors over a span of three years. At the forefront of this initiative is Our Community’s Children (OCC)
, a partnership of the City of Grand Rapids and the Grand Rapids Public Schools, who will act as the facilitator for adolescents in partnering with the organization to ensure their needs are being met.
“Anyone who spends a few minutes outside can experience tremendous benefits,” says OCC Executive Director Lynn Heemstra. “There’s not only academic impact, but there’s enhanced attention-span –– spending time in nature [will] help them focus their attention on what’s around them. There’s increased engagement and exploration, and discovery of outdoor experiences can really promote a motivation to learn and improve behavior.”
Heemstra says youth are spending less time outside than ever before; and among a wide range of factors, she strongly credits this to the pressure on young people to succeed academically. However, Heemstra does not see why the two cannot coexist.
“We had a KidSpeak event several years ago, and the young people talked about the city parks and playgrounds,” says Heemstra. “They were very upfront in saying that they used the parks to run in, to relax in, to spend time with family, to really get in tune with nature, and to chill out and hone themselves. These young people really talked about how important it was to have green places and spaces around them.”
The grant will span three years. In the first year, the OCC will plan how the grant will be used, and in the second two years, the group will implement grant programming.
One idea to push the initiative forward is an adventure club, where young people will have the opportunity to experience new outdoor activities and sports they would not normally be exposed to. As part of the adventure club, there would be a gear library, where outdoor equipment would be shared amongst the Grand Rapids community to participate in these new activities.
“Our Community’s Children is really dedicated to ensuring that young people have a voice at the table and that they are actively engaged in the project,” says Heemstra. “It’s building the next generation, and they absolutely are leaders in their own right.”
Photos courtesy of Our Community's Children.