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'Beautiful, cool and majestic': Urban students experience Lake Michigan

Many students in Grand Rapids Public Schools have never seen Lake Michigan. This year, every fifth-grader will, thanks to a partnership with a digital tech business.
Bravely dipping their feet into the cold water are, left, Alan Ramirez-Becerra and Naudia Radilla-Diego of Stocking Elementary S

Bravely dipping their feet into the cold water are, left, Alan Ramirez-Becerra and Naudia Radilla-Diego of Stocking Elementary S /Charles Honey

Isabelle Gonzales, front, and Yamilet Ruiz-Gomez gape with wonder at their first sight of Lake Michigan.

Isabelle Gonzales, front, and Yamilet Ruiz-Gomez gape with wonder at their first sight of Lake Michigan. /Charles Honey

By Charles Honey, School News Network

As they stepped onto a platform and gazed upon Lake Michigan, a group of Grand Rapids fifth-graders let loose a torrent of wonder.  

“So pretty!” “Oh my gosh, it’s beautiful!” “You can see Europe!” “I wish I lived somewhere around here!” “I see a lighthouse!” “I see feathers!”

It was a wondrous sight indeed for students from Stocking Elementary School, many of whom rarely venture far beyond the city limits. Kelly Morrissey, a naturalist guide for Ottawa County Parks and Recreation, had them fully take in the moment.

“Close your eyes and listen now,” she said, as the whooshing sound of the gentle surf overtook their chatter. “What do you hear?” “Waves, and birds,” they said. Then, “What do you see?” “Waves, grass, sand.”

Their excitement on a recent visit to Rosy Mound Natural Area near Grand Haven exemplified that of some 1,200 fifth-graders in Grand Rapids Public Schools. Perhaps 85 percent of them have never seen Lake Michigan, district officials say. But this year, thanks to an extraordinary outreach by a local company, every GRPS fifth-grader will.

Dan Behm and Open Systems Technologies, the company he founded, are providing field trips for all fifth-grade classes to visit the Big Lake this school year. After supporting such trips for West Side schools the past three years, Behm and OST this year expanded the initiative to cover all GRPS fifth-graders. By year’s end, students will have visited either Rosy Mound or P.J. Hoffmaster State Park near Muskegon.  

‘The lake belongs to these children’

Behm, now retired and a member of OST’s board of directors, said he wants to ensure all students experience the beauty of the Lake Michigan shoreline by the time they graduate. As someone who grew up in Grand Haven, he knows just how special it is.

“I love Lake Michigan. So I have a passion for the kids, I have a passion for the lake,” said Behm, adding he first became aware as a GRPS volunteer that many students never traveled beyond the city. “Ever since then I’ve had a passion for finding a way to show them something more out there -- to say, there’s so much more out there in this world, and it’s so simple and it’s so close.”

The initiative provides GRPS with a valuable business partnership, and provides children with environmental education and more, said Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal.

“The lake belongs to these children,” said Neal, who joined Behm to send off a bus-full of Stocking students. “This is our lake. For my kids to see this belongs to them, it does provide hope.

“You would be surprised at how many of these children have no idea about Lake Michigan,” she added. “We need these young children to keep the lakes clean. You start with appreciation, with knowing that it’s yours.”

Ecology lessons along the way

The Stocking School trip was the last for this fall; more schools will go in the spring. Most of the Stocking students had been to the beach before, as last year’s fourth and fifth grades went to Rosy Mound thanks to a grant obtained by teacher Erin Gotra. However, she said they learned a lot more this year because they were accompanied by field guides for Ottawa County Parks and Recreation.

One group of students hiked the winding, three-quarter-mile path to the beach with naturalist guide Kelly Morrissey. She pointed out sites of interest along the way, such as a hummingbird nest and tree pecks left by a pileated woodpecker. She was careful to keep students on the gravel path lest they contribute to erosion of the sand dunes.

“If we are knocking all that soil out from under these trees, what’s going to happen to these trees?” Morrissey asked. “They won’t grow,” a student answered.

At the first rise overlooking the lake from the high dune, she had them close their eyes until all were on the platform. Then they opened them with small gasps of delight.

Yamilet Ruiz-Gomez said she’d never seen the lake in the fall with all the dune’s bright maple and beech leaves. Asked how she would describe it to someone who’d never seen it, she said, “Very beautiful and very cool and majestic.”

Mario Torrez gratefully drank in the view and the quiet, far from the noise of urban highways. He said it all made him feel “calm and nice.”

Superintendent Neal would have loved to hear that, after recalling stories of children in Benton Harbor who could smell the lake but never saw it.

“Our children will never be able to say that, that we were so close and yet so far,” she said.

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