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Finding Purpose Along The Detroit River

Summer service learning in Michigan puts refuge on the map

By Tina Shaw

Knowing where you are can help you get to where you want to go, and both are elements of finding your voice. We at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service see national wildlife refuges as the perfect place to find yourself and your voice. Refuges are welcoming places for everyone to make connections, and so many of them are close to home for you to safely explore. Take a moment to learn about a special partnership that empowered a group of young people to develop their love for Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, find their voice and share with everyone why they are passionate about the nature that’s in their own backyard.

What do you get when you alloy three mission-focused organizations with the energy and drive of 20 young people? You get a spark, and some might say, a little bit of magic. That’s what happened on the shores of the Detroit River this summer. Meet Lisa Bryant, the community engagement coordinator for Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Being the first in this role, Lisa’s path was her own to map, and she saw a unique opportunity for alchemy. She melded the leaders of Life on Purpose Detroit, LLC – a Detroit-based organization that coaches youth, adults and job seekers more broadly – with Grow Detroit’s Young Talent, a citywide summer jobs program that trains and employs young adults between the ages of 14 and 24 together to give the refuge a digital makeover.

High school students devoted 120 hours of their summer to learn all about North America’s only international wildlife refuge and one of the crown jewels of the Urban Wildlife Conservation Program. The refuge is located along the lower Detroit River and western shoreline of Lake Erie – just 20 miles south of Detroit, Michigan and 50 miles north of Toledo, Ohio. In 2001, the refuge was established by Congress as a result of efforts by U.S. and Canadian politicians, conservation leaders and local communities to build a sustainable future for the Detroit River and western Lake Erie ecosystems.

“Our students had the privilege of working closely with the refuge’s rangers, soaking up invaluable knowledge in a short span of time. Their dedication was awe-inspiring, attending class every single day for six weeks, brimming with enthusiasm for the opportunity to collaborate with the wildlife refuge,” said creator and founder of Life on Purpose Doris Hage.

After an intensive deep dive into what makes this refuge so special – from the native plants and animals that define it to the long-running cultural history that overlays it – the students were immersed in lessons about digital marketing and entrepreneurship. Then came the fun part, a friendly competition as two marketing teams who were tasked with developing a mock marketing plan for the refuge went head-to-head. The dexterity with which the participants learned about social media, the importance and dangers of artificial intelligence and how to tie those aspects into promoting the refuge impressed everyone.

When thinking back on the experience, Lisa says that she was surprised with how the students took on the project with such ease, noting that, “None of the participants had any previous experience with marketing, let alone even knew the refuge existed. This program totally changed their perspective of their abilities and what life after high school can really be.”

Doris remarked that the experiential learning was, “Nothing short of life-changing, not only for our youth but for the communities they return to. Their extraordinary efforts garnered recognition from Grow Detroit’s Young Talent and the City of Detroit, which featured them as a standout program of the summer. Our heartfelt gratitude goes out to Lisa and the newfound family at the refuge.”

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