Meet The First Four Thrive Outside Communities

Four diverse cities across the country will be the first to pilot the Outdoor Foundation’s new vision of community-based grant making in an effort to grow outdoor participation among kids and their immediate and extended networks.

By Kristen Pope May 30, 2019

The Outdoor Foundation has selected four communities to pilot the organization’s new Thrive Outside Community program, an effort to inspire a nationwide outdoor habit by providing more kids and families across the country with repeatable, close-to-home experiences in nature in order to cultivate the next generation of outdoorists.

The Outdoor Foundation, with generous support from VF Corporation, REI, Patagonia, Thule and Wolverine Worldwide, is granting $410,000 to each of the four communities over the next three years. Each community’s work will be led by a “backbone partner organization” that will build a community-wide network of partner and stakeholder groups to complete projects and programs to meet the unique needs of their population.

The Outdoor Foundation board chose the sites through application review and site visits by the selection committee. The four inaugural Thrive Outside Communities range from mid-sized Grand Rapids, Michigan (population 198,000), to the bustling metropolis of Atlanta, Georgia (metro area: 5.8 million), and they encompass a broad cross-section of characteristics.

Outdoor Foundation executive director Lise Aangeenbrug notes the Foundation board considered a wide variety of criteria to make its selections. “[We focused on the] need [and] opportunity to reach a diverse population with repeat and reinforcing experiences,”  Aangeenbrug says.

The Foundation focused on communities with existing, rooted groups such as YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, recreation departments and school districts, and whose backbone partners have the capacity and resources to help facilitate collaboration among the groups. The goal is for these community networks to generate broader-scale impact than each partner group could do on its own. Other key considerations were each backbone partner’s relationship with core partners, their capacity to get buy-in from those partners, and their ability to facilitate outdoor experiences both close-to-home and further afield.

“We also chose geographically diverse locations with an emphasis on locations where getting outside is not the norm,”  Aangeenbrug says. Additionally, the Foundation hopes outdoor brands and retailers in the communities will take a hands-on role by providing volunteers, outreach and marketing efforts.

As the four inaugural pilot Thrive Outside Communities focus on coordinating, planning and implementing projects this year, OIA will be following right along. This article is the first of a four-part series chronicling the selected communities. In upcoming installments, we’ll delve into the web of existing organizations and what each group brings to the table. Finally, we’ll profile the projects each community selects and explore the process of implementing them, charting their progress along the way. But first, meet the four pilot Thrive Outside Communities.

Grand Rapids

In 2017, a study by the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department found Grand Rapids has just 5.4 acres of “accessible parkland” per 1,000 residents—a number far below the national average. Over 17,000 youth live more than a 10-minute walk from a park. The areas without adequate parkland are frequently in areas with high percentages of people of color, according to Lynn Heemstra, executive director of Our Community’s Children (OCC), in Grand Rapids. She notes a quarter of kids in Grand Rapids live in poverty. The organization, which was founded over 20 years ago, works to provide young people with the tools they need to succeed and encourages them to become active participants in their communities.

Young people’s voices matter, says Heemstra, who wants to make sure those voices are heard—especially around issues involving green space and outdoor access. “One of the first things that we did as a city-school partnership was to ensure that young people were seen and heard at City Hall and that they have a say in terms of what goes on in their own city,” Heemstra says.

Our Community’s Children wants to work with partners to provide more outdoor opportunities for young people in the community. They want young people to be actively engaged in the process of developing green spaces as well as in the process of using them, so they can become ambassadors and stewards of these spaces. “We work with students to get them actively engaged and the community engaged in defining what it is that they want in their parks and playgrounds,” Heemstra says.

One local park needed a redesign and young people were actively involved in the process, conducting research on park design and even performing a “park audit” for which they interviewed friends and family members to see what they would like in a park. They brought their findings to officials and presented them as a formal recommendation. Heemstra says they’ll see the results of this effort in the park this summer. The organization plans on also working on programming opportunities so kids can become further engaged with the outdoors.

“How can we activate young people in a way that they can experience things that they wouldn’t otherwise be experiencing?” Heemstra says. “And that could be a whole host of new skills and abilities such as hiking and biking and kayaking and the kinds of things that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to, but we also then want to ensure that they are actively engaged in the kinds of community needs that are going on and that they’re good stewards of those resources,” Heemstra says.

Atlanta, Georgia

The Chattahoochee River is, in many respects, the gem of metro Atlanta’s outdoor recreation portfolio. With a chain of parks that span 50 miles along the banks of the river, the Chattahoochee River Recreation Area offers an urban outdoor experience in one of the country’s biggest cities. However, access to the rec area is still an issue for many Atlanta residents.

The Trust for Public Land (TPL), Thrive Outside Atlanta’s backbone partner, was instrumental in protecting over 18,000 acres of land near the Chattahoochee River. TPL is now working with local partners to create transformative activities for youth along the waterway and beyond. TPL wants to help activate this acreage and provide resources to connect under-resourced kids in and around Atlanta with nature.

In 2018, TPL and partners, such as the neighborhood YMCA, began a pilot program to bring 200 kids and teens out to the Chattahoochee Nature Center for experiential outdoor programs where they did things like canoeing, journaling about nature, and learning about Native American history. TPL plans to use funds from the Thrive Outside Community grant to expand on the pilot program and provide more outdoor opportunities for young people, especially in Atlanta’s Westside neighborhoods.

“We’re talking about communities where half the homes are vacant or abandoned buildings, where less than 15 percent of housing stock is owner-occupied,” says George Dusenbury, Georgia State Director for TPL. Dusenbury says around 95 percent of Westside residents are people of color, and some of these zip codes earn 60 percent of the adjusted median income for the metro Atlanta area.

TPL is already working to connect Westside kids with nature, and one example is a collaborative project with the City of Atlanta. After a devastating flood in 2002 destroyed 160 homes, TPL and the City of Atlanta are now partnering to create 16-acre Cook Park where the homes once stood. The park will include a 1.5-acre pond to hold stormwater—and wildlife.

“The…kids in that neighborhood had never seen water [that didn’t come] out of the tap because we’ve buried all of our streams, and they don’t have the resources to get out of their communities,” Dusenbury says, adding that Cook Park will have a pond where kids will see fish and frogs, maybe for the first time. “What’s really great about this program is we’re going to be able to take them and show them not just the pond in Cook Park, but we’re going to take them out to the Chattahoochee River, give them an opportunity to fish, to look for salamanders, to walk the banks. When we’re talking about the demographics of the communities we’re serving, we’re really talking about those life-changing experiences…by providing the opportunity at the Chattahoochee River and close to home. That really is the foundation of this program.”

Dusenbury and his partners hope these experiences can help change kids’ lives and show them a whole new world of opportunity.

“I think my big dream would be that a 10-year-old that goes out to the Chattahoochee several times and then goes to parks close to home and has these great outdoor experiences will one day realize that there is opportunity for that child to enter into the environmental industry or the outdoor recreation industry,” says Susan Patterson, Georgia director of philanthropy for TPL.

 San Diego, California

People come from around the world to visit San Diego County’s beaches, bays, canyons, and the vast Anza-Borrego desert to the east. But despite the county’s world-renown, many of its own residents don’t have access to its outdoor wonders.

While 45 percent of the county consists of green space, a number of factors, ranging from lack of access to lack of transportation are keeping many residents from enjoying these areas. The area’s high cost of living means some residents work two or three jobs to make ends meet and don’t have much discretionary time.

In 2016, The San Diego Foundation and a number of partners started the San Diego Youth Outdoors collective impact initiative to work together to bring kids and families outside. The Thrive Outside Community grant will build on that effort to reach the county’s diverse 3.3 million residents—more people live in the county than in 21 individual states—and it will formalize the existing network that already exists and coordinate to provide more opportunities.

“The Outdoor Foundation’s support will help boost our collective efforts to increase meaningful outdoor engagement for youth and families with the lofty goal of improving health and wellness for all San Diegans,” says Ben McCue, who is the head of Outdoor Outreach, one of the partner organizations that helped to lead the Thrive Outside San Diego steering community alongside the SDF.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

When people think of Oklahoma City, the outdoor scene might not be the first thing that comes to mind. “Oklahoma has a, well, I don’t know if it’s a stigma or there’s this thing that goes along with the Dust Bowl or The Grapes of Wrath—these sort of things people have read about in their childhood history books—and there’s this idea, this perception that we’re dry and dusty or that we’re flat, and it really isn’t the case,” says Mike Knopp, executive director of the Oklahoma City Boathouse Foundation. “We have a lot of water here, in fact, and so I set out 15 years ago or more with this idea of creating a very unique urban outdoor adventure and paddlesports destination.”

Thanks to Knopp’s and partners’ work, the city is now home to a U.S. Olympic Training Site and the Paddlesports Retailer show, along with a wealth of flatwater and artificial whitewater opportunities.

The Boathouse Foundation has worked to get people out on the water through youth and adult programs, as well as corporate programs and events. It was a challenge to create so many outdoor opportunities in such a short span of time, but Knopp credits the state’s “pioneering spirit” and what he calls the “Oklahoma Standard” of working together to overcome adversity.

“I mean, the fact that we built a whitewater center in a place that no one would have ever expected I think shows that people can think big and want to move fast on things,” Knopp says.

More than just creating physical infrastructure, Oklahoma City is working to transform its culture to embrace the outdoors. “Essentially what [the Thrive Outside grant] is designed to do is help kind of advance and infuse an outdoor culture into Oklahoma City, especially with a particular focus on our youth,” Knopp says. “And really the idea is to create a generational change for the kids in Oklahoma City, which we think will transcend from kids to families, and we believe will make a really long-term impact in getting people to look at our community as one that has a variety of great outdoor assets.”

The Thrive Outside grant will help the OKC Boathouse Foundation examine barriers to access, including everything from individuals’ financial challenges to their swimming skills, and work to overcome these obstacles to create a level of comfort with the outdoor activities available. The Foundation will also seek to improve the area’s health and wellness metrics, which Knopp notes are typically quite low.

“Now we’ve got these resources, and now it’s just really a matter of advancing a culture that can make a huge generational change long-term,” says Knopp, adding that having support of the outdoor industry is especially powerful.”