How an Ohio Nonprofit Boosts Engagement With Parks

Photo: Friends of Metro Parks

The nonprofit organization launched a Winter Hiking Series challenge in 2015 that encouraged members to get out and explore 18 designated parks over a three-month period.

The rapid growth of the Friends of Columbus & Franklin County Metro Parks began with walking sticks. 

The nonprofit organization launched a Winter Hiking Series challenge in 2015 that encouraged members to get out and explore 18 designated parks over a three-month period. Hike the park and a member of the park staff stamps your “passport” and provides you with a walking stick, or a commemorative medallion to attach to it. “People really loved it and that increased our membership exponentially,” said Melissa Meyer, the development assistant of the Friends.

The goals of the Friends are noble ones: working with Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks to enhance the public’s knowledge, use and enjoyment of the parks; plus seeking public support while advocating for the parks on behalf of current and future residents of Central Ohio. Another important goal is “getting non-traditional park users into our parks,” Meyer said. “We want to see more diversity and to have everyone feel welcome and safe.”

The 2015 jump in membership led to the need to hire the organization’s first full-time employee. This was Meyer, who had recently graduated from Ohio State with a degree in Environment and Natural Resources. As an undergraduate, she participated in a case study project on Scioto Audubon Metro Park, which is located close to downtown Columbus. This research helped Meyer understand why Metro Parks are so important, specifically, “how they impact the city and county and take spaces that aren’t being used and turn them into something everyone can use.”

To help more people learn about and utilize the parks, and to expand the diversity of visitors, the Friends have created several programs, activities and events over the past several years with the goal of introducing more people to the 27,000 acres of parks and 230 miles of trails.

My Brother’s Keeper

The Friends participate in the city’s My Brother’s Keeper program. The program offers a regular series of fun, healthy, safe and educational experiences for BIPOC youths aged 9 to 18.

“We bring these kids out into our parks and give them a lot of really cool outdoor opportunities, and let them know about all of our parks,” Meyer said, “that they’re free and they’re places where they can go and have fun and kayak and rock climb and go through obstacle courses.”

Public Lands team members saw the impact of the Friends’ efforts this summer, volunteering with My Brother’s Keeper. The national program was created in 2014 by President Obama “to address persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and ensure that all young people can reach their full potential.”

Members of  Friends of Columbus & Franklin County Metro Parks attend Scioto Fest Photo: Friends of Metro Parks

Winter Hike Series

The new 2021-’22 Winter Hike Series provides a chance to get outdoors and maybe even earn a walking stick. “You can get your winter hike cards at the parks, starting December 1,” Meyer said of the stampable passports. With Quarry Trails recently opened at the end of 2021, there are now 20 Metro Parks locations. For the Winter Hike Series, the Heritage Trail and Homestead parks are grouped together as one hike, as is Slate Run and Slate Run Farm.

While she has a lot of favorite trails, Meyer listed a couple of her most favorite as Dripping Rock at Highbanks and the Hemlock and Cemetery Ridge trails at Clear Creek. 

Tad Jeffrey Memorial Fund

These grants have funded several new amenities at parks, including: butterfly beds, nesting structures, bee hives, an edible plant garden, and fitness equipment.

Robert “Tad” Jeffrey, who died in 2016, was a local business leader who played an integral role in the growth of Metro Parks. He was a longtime member of the board of park commissioners, championed the creation of Three Creeks Metro Park, and chaired the campaign that led to the successful passage in 2009 of a levy that provided funding for Metro Parks.

Scioto Fest

Held annually every September at Scioto Audubon Metro Park, the festival unites several outdoor activities, including the opportunity to try rock climbing on the outdoor wall, vendors, and an outdoor movie under the stars. Participants can camp overnight in the park. 

Tree and Bench Program

Want to honor a family member or friend? This program provides a way for individuals and groups to donate trees and benches in honor, or memory, of someone special.

Become a Friend

Membership with the Friends, which costs as little as $10 a year, has its rewards, including “hidden-gem” hikes and tours with a guide, regular emails full of information on the activities, programs and opportunities at parks, and “sneak previews” of new parks, such as the recently opened Quarry Trails Metro Park—and the chance to hike and earn a walking stick.

More Info

There are currently more than 1,000 members of the Friends of Metro Parks. Visit to become a member or to make a donation.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.