By Kevin Hurley, Trip Leader Specialist
A few weeks ago I had the exciting opportunity to work with two of my favorite groups located in the Hill District: The Jeron X. Grayson Community Center (JXGCC), with 6th to 8th graders, and the Center That C.A.R.E.S. (CTC), with 3rd to 5th graders. I was excited to see them as always, but this time we were going to do something pretty important. We were going to work with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and audit the routes with their program called the “Safe Routes to Parks” initiative. At CTC we worked with Gavin White and provided the children with chalk to mark areas that they deemed unsafe on the way to the park. They marked degraded sidewalks and areas with overgrown vegetation that were difficult to pass by or see around. At the park we asked them various questions about their feelings on the route and recorded their answers.
At JXGCC I worked with Kathryn Hunninen to make a geocaching course around their neighborhood up to the August Wilson Park. Similarly, at the end of the outing, we surveyed the youth and recorded their answers, noting things like times when we were forced to walk on the streets due to no sidewalks and times that we had to cross the street without any crosswalks. We also surveyed both groups on how often they go to the park and what they like to do there. I personally connected with one of the youth from JXGCC, Shamon, who said that he liked to go to the park to be alone, “to read his books, write down a rap, hear the birds sing and breathe the air.” When asked if he ever went with his friends he said no because those two things, his friends and his peaceful alone time, really didn’t coincide. Many times I’ve run through Schenley Park only to stop and admire a sunset or sunrise, or watch a deer cross the path in front of me, completely alone and removed from the city. To me his reasons are something that I can absolutely relate to.
What we, Venture Outdoors and the youth from CTC and JXGCC, did with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is hugely important. I don’t think I fully grasped it until reflecting on the activity and listening to the recordings of the groups’ answers. I believe access to nature is something that I’ve taken for granted recently. Some people, some youth, must face rather precarious conditions to access a green space, to be able to breathe fresh air for an hour a day, to be able to sit with companions or in solitude and write their thoughts down or do nothing at all but listen to the birds and have a moment of calmness. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity to have been able to lead these two outings with these two groups, to hear the feedback of the students, and to work with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy to make an effort to ameliorate the conditions that some neighborhoods must face to get to places that I consider sacred and that are free to the public. With our help and collaboration with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, I hope to see in the future parks and green spaces more easily accessible to everyone so that all may enjoy them for whatever reasons they find and so that anyone may be able to experience and connect to nature like and Shamon and I have.