“I see a frog down there,” a young boy exclaimed, laying down on the footbridge to get a better look at the amphibian in the wetland mud. His friends flopped down on either side, craning to get their own view.
The children, participants in the Kennedy Summer Day Program run by New Bedford Parks, Recreation and Beaches, were part of a larger group of kids spread out across The Sawmill, exploring nature on foot and by canoe and kayak for a two-hour exploration of the river and forest.
For most of the group, it was their first time visiting the reserve.
“Many of our campers do not have the opportunity or means to explore nature and learn how truly important the environment is—How fun it is to explore this beautiful world, to see how what we do today can alter the environment drastically, how to have a positive impact on nature,” said Catherine Henriques, program director for the Kennedy Summer Day Program. “The Buzzards Bay Coalition helps to keep the environment in the forefront for our city’s youth and we are so appreciative to have them as a partner.”
The Kennedy Summer Day Program is just one of a number of local organizations that the Coalition has hosted at The Sawmill over the course of the last few months. Others include the New Bedford Youth Council, Youth Opportunities Unlimited (Y.O.U.), the Boys and Girls Club of Greater New Bedford, the YWCA of Southeastern Massachusetts, and the Lloyd Center for the Environment.
“Encouraging people to get outside and experience the incredible natural resources we enjoy around Buzzards Bay is an essential part of our mission,” said Jennifer Downing, the Coalition’s vice president of engagement. “By partnering with other organizations, we are able to reach and introduce hundreds of children to nature right in their neighborhoods every year. It will enrich their lives, and it will help to protect the Bay for the long term.”
Linton Harrington, the director of operations and programs for Youth Opportunities Unlimited, said the mission of Y.O.U. aligns very well with the Coalition. “We’re trying to introduce kids to a variety of different experiences, to places that they haven’t been before and to doing things that they’ve never done before,” he said. The activities range from bicycling and hiking to gardening and cooking. “We’re looking to ignite a spark of interest in the kids, and we listen to what they have to say and try to accommodate the interests they have.”
After bringing one group of children to The Sawmill for kayaking in the Acushnet River, a number of the kids showed up the next day, saying that they want to go paddling again, he said. As a result, Harrington was planning to lead an outing to West Beach for kayaking in Clarks Cove, showing them yet another place to explore by kayak.
“One of the great things about bringing groups to The Sawmill is that it’s right on the New Bedford/Acushnet line so it’s really part of their city and it’s accessible to them and their families,” Harrington said. “For us, that’s the ideal thing if we can introduce them to something and have it be accessible for them and their families to go back.”
Sarah Jennings, education coordinator for the Coalition, said that the partnership with Y.O.U. creates an avenue for New Bedford youth to hike, canoe, and take adventures in the woods, something rare for many low-income families in NB’s city center. Our collaboration with Y.O.U allows us to connect youth in our community to nature and provide opportunities for them to enjoy and explore it safely. We hope those experiences will inspire them to want to be stewards of the Bay in the future.”
During visits to The Sawmill, Jennings and youth engagement volunteers Violet Paull and Isabella Zutrau-Pell offer young visitors some history on the transformation of the site from an industrial sawmill to a nature preserve, create opportunities for youth to explore the plants and animals in diverse habitats (meadow, river, upland forest, and red maple swamp), and discuss how the reserve is connected to New Bedford Harbor and the Buzzards Bay watershed.
While students learn from their visits to The Sawmill, the most immediate benefit comes from simply being outdoors and letting nature be the teacher. “A lot of our students don’t have the opportunity to play outside and explore nature,” said Bethany Martin, team leader for the Kennedy Summer Day program and a junior at Salve Regina College.” Bringing our students here is great because it shows them the value of protecting the Earth. And because they are stuck indoors so often it’s fun to see them playing outside.”
Michaela Barreira, a high school student who is working as a youth counselor in the program, summed it up, saying: “This gives them the chance to play outside in nature and just be children.”