Naturalists Tammy Snowberger, left, Jennifer Berk, and intern David Yafonaro, lead a group of 12-year-olds down the University Parks Trail to Wildwood Preserve Metropark. The walk was part of the National Youth Sports Program.
On a meandering path tucked behind a lush barrier of trees, a group of teenagers stands in silence. The dull roar of passing traffic is audible just beyond the trees.
"Listen for bird sounds," said Jennifer Berk, 24, a naturalist for Toledo Area Metroparks. "Pay attention to what's around you. This is a good place to come if you want a quiet time to think about things and get away from city sounds."
The opportunity to escape the sounds and stress of city life was a rare one for the youths who are participating in this summer's National Youth Sports Program at the University of Toledo. And although federal budget cuts two years ago left the program dangerously close to dissolution, it is still thriving, largely because of a newly forged partnership between UT and the Metroparks.
"Without the Metroparks, we would not have a program," said Ruthie Kucharewski, the administrator.
Shaliyah Thompson, left, Tonia Douglas, and Mariah Kyles enjoy the fresh air as they walk three miles on the University Parks Trail.
The parks this year provided $40,000 for the initiative, and last year it was a partial sponsor. The program also receives some private donations.
For 38 years, UT has hosted the program, an initiative that aims to provide healthy, outdoor recreational alternatives to at-risk youth.
In the wake of the government's budget cuts, the program for youths ages 10 to 16 has been straining against the limitations of its resources.
Prior to the cuts, it accepted 550 children each summer. Now, that number has decreased to 250. In addition, the initiative, which once lasted 27 days, only can afford to operate for 17.
Enrollment was filled to capacity weeks before activities began this summer, and there are 60 names on the waiting list.
Program employee Jaye Hayes hugs group leader Matt Rubin, a UT sophomore, before he takes his group outdoors.
The issue of retracted federal funding has not been limited to the youth program. It has had ripple effects throughout the city, as many similar programs have been forced to downsize or collapse.
"We all have our hands in the same pockets looking for money," Ms. Kucharewski said.
UT and the Metroparks have collaborated on other projects for many years, working jointly to develop university paths and trails. When Ms. Kucharewski approached the organization and made a case for its involvement, park leaders quickly came on board.
"We knew this was a program we could piggyback on and add to some of what UT has been doing," said Scott Carpenter, spokesman for the parks. "Our interests are almost exactly the same.
"Sometimes we come at it from different directions, but our overriding concern is to get kids outdoors, which is not easy to do these days."
The relationship between the two groups has been a symbiotic one.
"It's a win-win situation for us," Denise Johnson, associate director of the Metroparks, said. "One of our greatest missions is to be able to use any opportunity that we have to be able to introduce kids to nature, especially kids that might be more from the underserved segment, where the metropark is not easily within their reach."
Both the university and the parks play crucial roles in the functioning of the program. UT provides its classrooms, sports fields, and cafeteria, and keeps the grounds mowed and irrigated.
In the past, activities have consisted of sports and recreation on UT's campus, supplemented by day trips to locations such as the Lake Erie Science Center.
This year, with the additional terrain and resources provided by the parks, participants have been able to explore natural habitats and learn about local fauna.
"Now that the Metroparks are involved, the program is doing well," said John Ward, a teacher for the Toledo Public Schools who has worked as a program staff member for 15 years. "While the kids are here, we touch on things the school system might not have been able to cover."
For now, though the future of federal funding remains uncertain, the enduring popularity of the program is testament to the successful partnership between the Metroparks and the university.
Near the end of a 3-mile hike from UT's main campus to Wildwood Metropark, Ciara Jackson, 12, plucked a ragged leaf from a branch and grinned.
"This program is fun," she said. "And otherwise, I'd be sleeping in, eating junk, and watching TV."
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