Joan Vinette appreciates Lake Superior, and she wants others who live near its shores to appreciate it, too.
Vinette, a Michigan State University Extension educator in Alger County, developed the Life of Lake Superior Youth Program
13 years ago in response to what she saw as a disconnect between area youths and the vast natural resource in their midst.
"I saw a need for youth in Alger County to better appreciate the beautiful Lake Superior shoreline and its recreational opportunities," Vinette explains. "I also noticed that young people working in tourist-related businesses didn't seem to be able to relate to the tourists and the many things to do and see in this area. They didn't seem to have a sense of place, possibly because they may not have had access to going where tourists go. So they couldn't appreciate why 400,000 tourists come to Munising annually. If a tourist asked them, "What is there to do?" they would simply say, "There is nothing to do here."
The Life of Lake Superior Youth Program is open to children ages 9 to 14, as well as their parents and grandparents. The program offers them the opportunity to explore their community and appreciate local arts, natural resources, history, culture, recreation, and careers relevant to those who live in proximity to the lake's shoreline.
Vinette, who serves as the program coordinator, says the programs blend education and recreation. Some of the more popular workshops, Vinette says, have been "Those that get kids out on the water: kayaking, fishing, sailing, boat tours, and going to Grand Island."
"In Alger County we are fortunate to have an abundance of natural resources, and agencies that oversee their recreation potential. We partner with them to introduce youths to the science, historical, arts, and cultural aspects of being a gateway community to a national forest, national park, and Grand Island national recreation area," she says.
Partners include Sea Grant, the U.S. Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Michigan DNR, the US. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
There also is an advisory committee, and input from parents and presenters that keeps the program moving forward.
"Sometimes new ideas just come to us when we least expect it; then (they) are shared with the advisory committee members, and often their ideas add to the way we will do something new," Vinette says.
"The enthusiasm and talents of the many volunteers make this program work," she says. "They love showing kids how to appreciate and enjoy the outdoors."
Access to the Life of Lake Superior Youth Program for all children, regardless of income, is a top priority. The program is financed through local fundraising efforts.
"Since the beginning of the program in 2000, no fees have been charged to families for their children to participate. It was important to me that there are no barriers for Alger County children to participate. Transportation is another barrier to participation that is covered. From the start the ALTRAN bus service was arranged to pick up participants in outlying communities and various neighborhoods in Munising," she says.
The program is offered over four days each July. An average of 75 youths participate each summer, along with 10 parents or grandparents who participate in activities with their children each day. Youths may attend one or more days, with student participation limited to 50 children per day, with 10 parents/grandparents, along with four to six teen volunteers who serve as youth leaders. Thirty to 35 adults are involved each day as well, serving as workshop presenters, site hosts, and group leaders.
Volunteers also serve as bus drivers, food helpers, and site set-up assistants.
The program's success is evidenced by its influence, which extends far beyond its four-day-a-year span.
"Parents and grandparents have shared many times when their kids have commented about activities and that they want to do them again," Vinette says. "For example, since introducing kids to kayaking, a number of families have shared that they have purchased kayaks so that their family could enjoy paddling together. Parents have expressed appreciation that we offer such a large variety of healthy foods and that their kids will eat new foods."
The healthy foods are served with a nautical flair by "Captain Nutrition," a.k.a. Vicki Ballas, MSU Extension SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) education program associate. Ballas, who designed the program, says she "jumped on board" when Vinette asked her to participate.
Presenting nutritious food as an adventure rather than a requirement is key, says Ballas.
"During my nutrition lessons I encourage them to be brave and adventurous sailors by trying something they never had before. I tell them that I have only one rule: If you try something and you don't like it, you can spit it out into the spit bowl. I won't be mad, and you aren't wasting food. Adults don't eat food that they don't like, why do we make kids do it? When a kid tries a new food and doesn't like it, the last thing they want to do is swallow it. If they can spit it out, the horribleness is over quickly and they are more willing to keep trying new foods. It's that simple," she says.
The varied locations where workshops are offered can be a challenge for both menu planning and food preparation. Location, Ballas says, "is a big influence. Many sites are rustic, so we have cooked over open fires, gas and charcoal grills, propane burners, a wood-fired bread oven, and made cold lunches. When we have electricity we use Crock Pots and other cooking appliances. We have the kids cook and assemble their own meals and snacks, (and) we always practice and teach food safety."
Ballas has been pleasantly surprised by the reception her nutritious offerings consistently receive.
"My first year, I will never forget when a sixth-grade girl thanked me for providing healthy food instead of the standby hot dogs and hamburgers that would typically be served at a youth event. The first year many were pleasantly surprised by the menu, and now they are eager to try new healthy foods and unusual combinations using whole grains, fruits and vegetables. The mother of one shy boy was amazed to see him trying asparagus on his 'Superior Nachos' after a morning of kayaking."
A variety of engaging activities led by enthusiastic volunteers, along with delicious, nutritious food served with a fun, seaworthy twist, continues to make the Life of Lake Superior Youth Program a vibrant presence in Alger County.
"It is special to be able to watch kids enjoying being on or near Lake Superior," says Vinette. "We live on the shore of the 'greatest lake.' We want local kids to grow up learning to appreciate their community and the Lake Superior shoreline where they live."
Deb Pascoe of Marquette is a freelance writer and a peer recovery coach for Child and Family Services of the U.P. A former columnist for The Mining Journal, her book, "Life With a View ," a collection of her past columns, is available in area bookstores.