As the sun sinks over the lake at FortWhyte Alive, a dozen youth from the North End chow down on sandwiches and fresh cut veggies as they fuel up for an evening of canoeing at the nature conservation centre.
Amid the prairie dogs, Canada geese, and wildflowers, 16-year-old Teanna Nepinak takes in the fresh air.
"It’s nice out here," Nepinak said. "I feel like I’m reconnected to nature and stuff.
Last Tuesday was Nepinak’s third visit to FortWhyte Alive with a crew from Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre. Since early June, the group has been participating in free, regular programming at the centre as part of the Strong Roots program, a partnership between Winnipeg’s civic unions and FortWhyte Alive.
Civic unions, inner-city community organizations, and FortWhyte Alive have teamed up to provide youth from the North End a chance to experience activities at the Tuxedo-based nature conservation centre on a monthly basis.
"I’m happy I got picked because some kids in the north side don’t get out as much," Nepinak said. "It’s good for, I guess, less fortunate kids to go out, and get out," she added. "Kids around there can’t come out here by themselves, and with their family because they don’t have a car or it’s too far, so I think it’s great."
At least once a month, the group of children, ages eight to 12 and a few teen mentors, board a chartered Winnipeg Transit bus in the North End, and head southwest to Tuxedo. Staff at FortWhyte feed the youth and then lead them through about three hours of programming that includes everything from critter dipping and wetland exploration, to bison safaris, forest playtime, and more.
Brittany Murdock, Turtle Island Neighbourhood Centre co-ordinator, said kids have developed a respect for the outdoors and wildlife since attending FortWhyte Alive.
"It’s been a really great experience even for myself, I’ve never got so much nature before living in the city," Murdock said. "For all these youth, a lot of them live in the inner-city where they don’t have the resources to come out to FortWhyte and enjoy nature, to really touch roots with mother earth again, and not only that, but get them away from the TV, get them out into nature, and smelling the outdoors."
The approximately $8,000 pilot project is funded primarily by the Amalgamated Transit Union 1505, the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, and the Winnipeg Police Association, and members of the unions attend each session as mentors for the kids.
Jon Rost, a 20-year bus operator with Winnipeg Transit, first suggested the idea of taking inner-city youth out to FortWhyte and got the other unions on board. The River Heights resident has since attended each session as a mentor.
"As the saying goes, if the walls are closing in on kids, remove the walls, and this is an opportunity for them to come and be in nature, where they may not have that opportunity, and to be kids," Rost said.
"I hope it continues on, and there are already conversations about how we can carry it on."
FortWhyte Alive custom programs coordinator Barret Miller said within three sessions the Ma Mawi youth are more confident and comfortable in nature and it’s been a privilege to provide a safe space to play outdoors.
"The objective is to build some life skills, co-operation, teamwork, and self-confidence through outdoor recreation skill building," Miller said. "A secondary objective is getting all different parts of our city — uniformed union members, educators, and kids from underserved parts of Winnipeg — to see each other as human.
"We’re all out here having fun in the outdoors: a very common denominator kind of experience."
Kevin Rampersad, a director with the WPA and serving officer, has been out with the group twice, and said the exchangeof experiences has resulted in real friendships.
"We learn as much from them as they learn from us," Rampersad said. "They inspire us, and that’s a lot of the reason why we get involved with these things, to get to know these kids on a different level. So that they realize that aside from our jobs, we’re also just like them."
Danielle Da Silva is the community journalist for The Sou'west. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org