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Before we get outdoors

What does it take to develop a park program? Who is making our parks and open spaces possible? This ‘behind the scenes’ part of our industry is exactly what fascinates Corps Individual Placement (IP), Maria Lee. Maria started with the MN Department of Natural Resources in January as a Youth Outreach Specialist IP and has dedicated her work to learning how young people fit into Parks and Trails at a policy and systems level. “It has been empowering to allow the voices of young people to be heard,” says Maria.

In college, Maria studied Park Management and majored in Geography, while also working at places such as Wilderness Inquiry and the National Park Service. After her term with Conservation Corps, she plans to go back to school for Urban and Regional Planning. All of Maria’s work connects people to the outdoors. For example, her priorities at the DNR are driven by the Parks and Trails Legacy Plan, a 25-year strategic plan to connect people and the outdoors, acquire land to create opportunities, take care of what we have and coordinate among partners. Here is their vision:

In 2035, our world-class parks and trails connect everyone to the outdoors. They create experiences that inspire a legacy of stewardship for the natural world and they provide fun outdoor recreational opportunities that strengthen friendships, families, health, and spirit, now and into the future. Minnesotans experience the full range of benefits that outdoor recreation provides, reinforcing our identity as an outdoor culture.

Maria is working to support this vision through three exciting initiatives.

1.       Designing and administering a staff questionnaire in order to understand youth engagement with state and regional parks and trails. The goal is to conduct 40 interviews with DNR staff this summer and then expand to other Legacy partners including the Metropolitan Council and Greater Minnesota Regional Parks and Trails Commission.

2.       Leading Youth Outdoor Exploration Workshops where young people plan their own day trip in a state or regional park or trail. Two groups from Minneapolis and St. Paul are planned to pilot the workshops this summer with hopes to broaden the program this fall. Maria hopes that the youth who participate in the workshop feel that their ideas and preferences about parks and trails are valuable to share with decision makers.

3.       Enriching the experience for Youth Interns at the DNR. Nine high-school summer interns from Right Track and Step Up programs will have a more intentional and connected experience because of Maria. She is planning ‘Lunch and Learn’ events with the youth, as well as career-exploration opportunities.

Maria hopes the interviews and workshops will help create a more complete picture of how youth engagement happens with parks and trails. She hopes the perspective gained through these initiatives may be used to more effectively and meaningfully involve youth in program and facility development. She wants the initiatives she is starting to be sustainable and provide a greater impact on youth engagement opportunities with the Parks and Trails Legacy Fund. But no matter what the outcome, Maria feels lucky to be a part of the DNR cohort of IP members. She appreciates the opportunity to meet those that have a stake in our parks and trails. Maria is well on her way to becoming a leader in that arena.