Millions of city dwellers rely on urban green spaces for connection with nature, a temporary escape from the cement and steel that dominates their environment. But the ability to do so isn’t a given; urban green spaces are often concentrated in areas of greater wealth, contributing to a sense of nature being inaccessible.
Detroit Outdoors is working to change that in the Motor City.
The program, a collaboration of Sierra Club Outdoors for All, Detroit Parks and Recreation Department, and YMCA of Metro Detroit, aims to get kids interested in experiencing and protecting nature, right in their own city. Detroit Outdoors just completed its first year of funded programming.
Garrett Dempsey, the lead Sierra Club staffer in the coalition, facilitated the conversations that led to its creation. “Our role in the community is one of support and wider collaboration,” he says. “We begin by recognizing the bounty and strengths that already exist in Detroit—hundreds of adults already do tremendous youth work here. Detroit Outdoors helps them bring it into a natural setting, often through a youth’s first overnight camping experience.”
Participants camp in Rouge Park, which at nearly 1,200 acres is Detroit’s largest municipal park. Scout Hollow, the city’s only campground, is the base for exploration of the park’s forest and river access. Detroit Outdoors provides leader training, a fully outfitted camping gear library, and programming for youth groups.
“The Sierra Club motto—Explore, Enjoy, Protect—is deeply enmeshed in the Detroit Outdoors program,” says Dempsey. “Our work connects communities to nature and to one another. The youngest children who visit may have an experience that is better described as “Explore, Play, and Learn,” but it’s a meaningful way to introduce them to nature.”
The program includes a two-day Camping Leadership Immersion Course (CLIC) for youth leaders. Catie Bargerstock is one such leader; she works for buildOn, a nonprofit that uses community service to educate and empower urban youth. Bargerstock has been its Service Learning Program coordinator at Western High School for three years.
A Michigan native from East Lansing, Bargerstock graduated from Michigan State University with an Arts and Humanities degree. After a stint with AmeriCorps, she joined buildOn. Bargerstock enjoyed the CLIC training and the opportunity it provided to connect with other Detroit youth leaders. “While we don’t all do the same thing, we all work with students and have an interest in getting them outdoors and connected with each other,” she says. “I’ve been to trainings with people who work with adults, but this group really understood what the challenges are with youth.”
Around 20 students ages 13–18 from several Detroit high schools took part in buildOn’s 2018 summer camping program via Detroit Outdoors. Camping at Scout Hollow followed a week of environmental education with Green Living Science. Once at the park, the group performed such tasks as clearing brush and installing a free library before camping out overnight.
buildOn also works abroad, where U.S. youths help build schools. “Part of the reason I’m interested in this program is that the living conditions our youth experience in those countries are minimal, similar to camping,” Bargerstock says. “This gets them ready for that environment; it’s a huge benefit.”
Bargerstock is enthusiastic about the group’s time at Scout Hollow. “It was an absolute blast; the coolest part was giving them the experience of camping and being able to do it in Detroit,” she says. “Some hadn’t heard of camping, while others heard of it, but had never done it. Many were out of their comfort zone—but they tried it, found they loved it, and left plotting their next trip.”
Anita Singh works for Keep Growing Detroit, an organization that works to create food sovereignty in the city and which provides seeds and plants to 1,500 community, school, and family gardens through its Garden Resource Program. She has run its youth program for four years, and is another CLIC-trained leader who brought a group to Scout Hollow last summer.
Singh grew up in Ohio and Wisconsin, and studied sociology and zoology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She echoes Bargerstock’s enthusiasm for the CLIC training, calling it a “nice networking opportunity. I’m pretty outdoorsy myself, so I have experience at it, but it was also good to get perspective on what to do when you take a large group of kids out.”
Singh runs a summertime farm-based youth employment program that also offers kids a chance to enjoy activities such as kayaking and swimming. “It made sense to have one of the last summer activities be a camping trip,” she says. “We could spend time together cooking and building skills. Next time, we hope to visit the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network farm in Rouge Park.”
The trip to Scout Hollow wasn’t without its challenges. “The camp is located in the flood plain of the Rouge River, so it’s mosquito heaven,” says Singh. “The worst part of the season happened during the time we were there, but by the next week the kids were talking about it like it was the most fun they ever had. They really enjoyed the program.”
She appreciates Detroit Outdoors for the access to nature it provides. “The important thing is that it allows for kids of color to have access to something that’s right in their backyard. The city of Detroit is over 80 percent black, so it’s important that outdoors and leadership programs reflect the makeup of the city.”
buildOn and Keep Growing Detroit are both planning return visits to Scout Hollow this summer, which pleases Dempsey. “Catie and Anita are perfect examples of how Detroit Outdoors integrates into the broader community,” he says. “They work for amazing organizations that help young people develop into healthy individuals and community leaders. Catie and Anita each have a love of nature, and Detroit Outdoors allows them to share it with the youth they serve. They’re helping strengthen the connections between Detroiters and the natural spaces in their city.”