It’s a bright May afternoon in New Bedford’s Buttonwood Park and Megan Dixon, The Trustees’ Mobile Engagement Manager, finishes setting up myriad nature-based activities and models for a 2pm pop-up event. Two cornhole boards lie near a quilt holding binoculars, bird books, plush birds, and a sensory box filled with goodies like rubber frogs and a wooden snake. An information table displays a state map of Trustees reservations, mini microscopes, silicone beaver and deer tracks, a jarred monarch butterfly wing, and a honeybee lifecycle model. Soon, seven-year-old Oliver Rapoza walks toward Dixon with his mother.
“Want to help me build a fort?” Dixon asks the boy. His mom nods and Rapoza runs to join Dixon, who ties a piece of twine around three bamboo sticks to form a tipi shape. Then, Rapoza takes the lead and the two start expanding the structure.
Megan Dixon works with Oliver Rapoza to build a fort out of bamboo sticks. Photo by Victoria Abbott Riccardi
This bonanza of nature-based fun is part of a program launched last summer called Mobile Adventures. Generously funded by the Yawkey Foundation, it consists of an eco-friendly, fully-electric 2022 Ford Transit van visiting parks, festivals, community events and centers throughout New Bedford and Fall River to help kids, ages six through 12, engage with the out-of-doors. The van holds 100-plus STEAM programming resources for coastal exploration, forest and geology investigations, and adventure- and craft-based activities. Four outdoor educators help facilitate each event, with approximately five events staged weekly.
“Mobile Adventures evolved to reach more diverse audiences, particularly in urban communities where we might not have properties,” says Jen Klein, Ph.D., Director of Outdoor Experiences, who conceived the idea. “Not everyone has a car and it shouldn’t always be about people coming to us, but how we can bring the Trustees experience to people where they are.” While The Trustees has long promoted outdoor education, low-income communities and those of color haven’t always benefited. Now more can, thanks to Mobile Adventures, which concurrently fulfills the Trustees mission to invite the next generation outdoors.
Around 3pm, Rapoza’s still engineering the bamboo harvested from nearby Allen C. Haskell Public Gardens. Mobile Adventures tries to use natural resources for many of its activities and crafts, says Dixon, noting that a designated plot at Haskell grows flowers and plants for crafts like watercolor painting flowers, making sun catchers, flower crowns, and fairy houses.
Soon, Jackie St. Thomas stops by with her mother and 11-month-old daughter. After a moment on the cornhole board, the three settle on the quilt and the mother and grandmother alternatively hand the baby various stuffed birds, which emit their call when squeezed. The three also explore the sensory box.
Photo by Victoria Abbott Riccardi
Nature in Demand
“The greatest challenge this program faces is the demand for what we offer far exceeds what we can accommodate,” says Klein. Last year, Mobile Adventures held 47 events in Boston, Fall River and New Bedford over a 13-week season. While the initiative worked with 30 partner organizations and engaged 5,500 plus people, including over 1,500 kids, the staff was overstretched.
Thus, this year’s season, Memorial Day through Labor Day, doesn’t include Boston. Nevertheless, Dixon has cultivated over 35 South Coast partner organizations, including the Mayor’s Office in Fall River, New Bedford Parks, Recreation & Beaches, and the MA Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), with plans to offer everything from garden-based crafts to pickling workshops.
Because Mobile Adventures has been such a hit with participants and partners, The Trustees is trying to secure more funding for a second van and to hire more staff, especially those representing the communities being served. “The population in Massachusetts is becoming increasingly urban, yet nature is all around us and people need to access it,” Dixon says. “Having a good time outdoors promotes mental health and wellbeing and the goal for Mobile Adventures is ultimately to be in Gateway Cities across the state with professional staff on each site.”
Around 3:30pm, Oliver Rapoza has finished his fort with the help of several more children. Some kids are playing cornhole; others are playing hide and seek with the wooden snake. “Okay, everyone, it’s time to pack up,” announces Dixon, agreeing to one last cornhole game before ending the pop-up and packing up the van.
“I see Mobile Adventures as a long-term initiative,” says Klein. “When the van goes to a park—the idea is to inspire that kid to go back to that park. The second goal is to have them come to a Trustees property and hike. Then, way down the road, maybe become a lover of conservation and possibly even a Trustees member.”
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