How these Port Huron Parks & Rec youth are staying fit and active during COVID-19

This story was originally published in sister publication The Keel.

Spring is typically the time of year when Noah Brooks begins to eagerly look forward to the fun and excitement of going to camp. For the last several summers, Noah, a third grader at Crull Elementary in Fort Gratiot, has been attending a program called Summer Day Camp, sponsored by Port Huron Parks & Recreation. The camp takes place from June to August at the Palmer Park recreation center in Port Huron and gives participating children a chance to engage in a mix of sports, arts and crafts, and other indoor and outdoor activities. Much to Noah’s dismay, though, camp has been canceled this summer due to the coronavirus outbreak.

"I'm really going to miss going to the park," he says. "I like swimming, going outside, doing crafts. I’m going to miss being around people."

Heath and Noah BrooksAs with most of us, life hasn't been the same these last few months for Noah, who's been spending most of his time at home with his father in Fort Gratiot and his mother in Port Huron. He fills his time working on school assignments and playing video games. But while he and his dad do go out to their backyard to throw a football around and play catch when they can, being outdoors is a lot different than it used to be. People now wear masks when they're out walking their dogs, and he's not allowed to touch playground equipment any more, due to the risk of catching COVID-19.

"I don’t like it, because I have to stay inside and I like being outside," says Noah. "I just want to have a normal day."

A Whole New World

The summer camp that Noah traditionally attends is just one of the many programs normally offered to area youth by Port Huron's Parks & Recreation Department. Until recently Port Huron-area youth could also enroll in a wide variety of sports, swimming, dance, arts, and self-defense programs and join clubs for activities like chess and outdoor excursions.

Each year, hundreds of local youth participate in the programs, 150 middle schoolers volunteer with them and 125 high-school and college-age youth are employed through them. Beyond that, the rec department oversees 26 parks (many of which have basketball or tennis courts), three beaches, several pools, the Palmer Park Rec center, an ice rink, and a theater complex.

The arrival of the coronavirus, though, has dramatically changed the department's day-to-day operations.

"All of our place-based programming has been canceled. Our ice rink and theater are closed. Our day camp is closed. Our beach is open but with limited facilities, no bathrooms, no splash pad, no picnic tables," says Director Nancy Winzer. "It’s a whole new world for Parks & Rec."

The department plans on releasing a summer brochure with social distancing guidelines in the near future. It's also been sponsoring a series of virtual events that include a trivia night, bicycle stunts, sing-alongs, nature talks, magic tricks, fitness workouts, and more.

On the bright side, attendance at all of Port Huron's Park tends to be way up. Still, Winzer is concerned about whether the kids who've been involved in their programming are getting enough exercise and time outside.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends youth between the ages 6 and 17 get at least an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day and engage in activities like running and jumping, which strengthen bones, as well as climbing or pushups, which strengthen muscles, at least three days a week. Beyond that, spending time outdoors can enhance kids’ creativity, help them focus and decrease stress, according to the Center for Parenting Education.

"We worry about our kids every day," says Winzer. "Kids always look forward to all the activities at the rec center. We're trying everything we can to keep them busy."

Staying Engaged

Jordan DansbyJordan Dansby, a second grader who's enrolled in Indian Woods Elementary School in Kimball Township, has been doing his best to stay active during these challenging times. A participant in Port Huron's Parks & Rec's karate and soccer programs, he's been taking virtual karate classes while he stays at home with his mother and father during the pandemic.

"We’ve been practicing on the computer," he says. “We do little things on Zoom. We're learning new stuff."

Jordan loves doing karate, which helps him feel stronger and more athletic, and is glad to be continuing his studies at home. But he feels "sort of sad" that he doesn't get to hang out with his classmates in person.

Unfortunately, Jordan has also had to deal with COVID-19's direct impact on his family. St. Clair County, where he lives, has had a relatively low presence, 490 total cases and 34 deaths, as of May 23. Regrettably, though, he's lost two relatives, cousins of his mother, to the disease and two other family members are currently hospitalized with the virus. As a result of this, it's not surprising Jordan has some concerns about the disease.

"You might catch coronavirus," he says. "People are going up [too close] to other people, that's how it spreads."

Thankfully, despite these worries, Jordan has definitely been getting his share of exercise.

"I take walks. I ride my bike without training wheels. I jump on the trampoline," he says. "The best part of being at home is jumping on the trampoline."

Backyards and Beaches

Aiden and Colton CarrierColton and Aiden Carrier, who live in Port Huron, have also been doing their best to stay engaged and fit during the crisis. The brothers attend Thomas Edison Elementary, first and third grade respectively, and until recently were very engaged in the athletics program there. Both played hockey, golf, and lacrosse through their school, while Colton also played basketball and Aiden soccer. Through Parks & Rec, they attended sports programs when they were younger and regularly went swimming at Port Huron's Sanborn Pool.

"We went twice a week," says Colton. "I miss that I don’t get to do cannonballs."

Sheltering-in-place has been "pretty boring" for Aiden. To stay busy he's been doing his schoolwork, reading, and practicing lacrosse and other sports in the backyard as best he can with his brother and dad. Colton is sad that he's stuck at home and unable to play sports or hang out face-to-face with his friends. In addition to sports practice, he's been playing video games and racing a radio-controlled car he got for his birthday. With their mother and father, the brothers have also been taking regular trips down to the beach.

"We live right on Lake Huron," says Aiden. "And we go for walks by the water a lot. We look for sea glass."

While they do go swimming in the lake a little, it's not the same as going to the Sanborn Pool. Colton misses the lessons he was taking, remarking that he's out of practice. To stay connected with Parks & Rec, however, the brothers have been checking out the virtual events it's been sponsoring.

"We do trivia every Tuesday, and I watch the BMX bike thing," says Aiden. “They have small ramps and they do BMX tricks. It's fun."

Silver Linings

Rachel GreenRachel Green, a high schooler who lives in Marysville, has had a bit of a different relationship with Parks & Rec. While she was involved with their sports programs as a kid, last year she began work at the Palmer Recreation Center, supervising a super slide and interacting with children at a kids' playscape called Sprout City. Green was really hoping to do that again this summer, but unfortunately the arrival of the coronavirus has made that impossible.

A junior at Marysville high school, Green is on the girl's golf team and her school band's drumline. While she misses those activities, she does see silver linings to staying at home.

"I like the chill homebound atmosphere," she says. "I get to spend time with my mom and my dad and to catch up on all the shows I want to watch and get to bake every second I possibly can. And I can just do different things that I would have the time for if I was a school having a sport right now."

Green is considering a career in accounting and actuarial science. In what turned out to be a very smart move, she spent last summer checking out colleges and has a pretty good idea where she wants to apply. That said, she definitely thinks the pandemic has made everything "pretty weird" and wonders when life and school will get back to normal.

The high schooler only knows a few people who've come down with COVID-19, and feels people in her neighborhood for the most part are being pretty respectful.

"Everyone's very cautious," she says. "Everyone's wearing masks at the grocery, and I know they're doing their best."

Staying at home, though, does bring its own challenges. Green misses interacting with people and is often faced with the question of what to do with all her free time. In addition to cooking and watching TV, she spends a lot of time in group chats hanging out with her friends online. Beyond that, she takes every opportunity she can to go on long walks with her mom. Green finds that going outside really helps her relax and refocus.

"It feels so good to get that fresh air," she says. "After just being cooped up, I like to just go out and breathe and move. All that good stuff."

Voices of Youth is a series that will capture the youth perspective and narrative during the COVID-19 response to recovery. It is made possible with funding from the Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan.

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