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.”