Reconnect with Nature: Farmington Hills Nature Center Offers Plenty for Seniors

Are you a caregiver seeking enriching activities for seniors in Farmington Hills? Look no further than the Farmington Hills Nature Center! This haven of nature offers a plethora of programs designed to stimulate minds, strengthen bodies, and foster social connections.

In this podcast episode, Chris interviews Ashley Smith, a naturalist and supervisor at the Center. They delve into the Center’s offerings for the 50+ community, exploring:

Free, Educational Programs: From virtual “Nature Education Series” to in-person “Coffee and Stroll” walks, the Center provides engaging opportunities for lifelong learning and exploration of the natural world.

Social Interaction and Camaraderie: Programs like “Coffee and Stroll” foster friendships and a sense of belonging among seniors. These social connections are crucial for well-being.

Volunteer Opportunities: Give back to the community and stay active! The Center offers diverse volunteer opportunities, from animal care to assisting with programs.

Seasonal Activities: The Center embraces the beauty of every season with programs tailored to witness the wonders of spring’s bloom or winter’s quietude.

This podcast is a must-listen for anyone seeking to enhance the lives of seniors in Farmington Hills. Let the Farmington Hills Nature Center be your guide to a world of discovery, connection, and joy!

Watch the full episode or read the transcript below.

Chris: Welcome to connecting the community with Chris. I’m excited about this podcast. Today we have a special guest, Ashley Smith, a naturalist, and supervisor at the Farmington Hills Nature Center.

[Intro Music Plays]

Chris: We are fortunate to be here today with Ashley. To learn more about the classes, information, and activities that you offer to the senior community here. So welcome to our show. We’re excited to have you.

Ashley: Yeah, thanks. For having me.

Chris: So, tell us a little background about yourself and how you got started at the Nature Center.

Ashley: Sure. So, I’ve worked here at the Nature Center since 2011 as the Nature Center supervisor. We started off as a really small but mighty crew, and we’ve grown a lot over the years, including a lot more programing. So, we really pride ourselves on having something for everybody to get involved with. Whether you’re one and a half years old or 100 years old, there’s something for everybody to do and connect with nature. So my background, I’m from Michigan. I went to Central Michigan University. I have a degree in environmental studies, really focusing on botany and natural resources, and then have worked at other nature centers around not just the Midwest, but all around the country, doing environmental education until it brought me back here to Michigan, where I’m from. In 2011. And I’ve been here ever since, really enjoying growing our programs, adding things, really based on what the community needs and what they desire and, enjoying every day. So, yeah, it’s great.

Chris: That’s great. You know, it’s nice to have someone in our community. You really live this. And so.

Ashley: And I live here too.

Chris: Yeah. And yeah, no, a person of our community, you know. Really. I know a lot of people are connected to you. And so, we’ll start with our first question. I want everyone to really get to know who you are and and the value that is in the center. So, what is the mission of the Farmington Hills Nature Center?

Ashley: Sure. So, our mission is really twofold. We really pride ourselves on being a free community gathering place for our not just our residents, but, you know, folks from all over southeast Michigan and beyond to come and connect with nature. There’s not a lot of opportunities for folks to just come somewhere where it’s completely free. You don’t have to pay for parking, you don’t have to pay an entrance fee and really get those experiences. It’s almost like you’re taking a trip up north and not having to drive more than 20 minutes. So, we really pride ourselves on that part. And then the second part of our mission is really focused on education, environmental education and connecting folks with nature, outdoor recreation. And so having something for everyone in the education realm is really important to us. So, we start down from like early childhood. We have a nature preschool here with 60 students. And so really building that foundation for a love of nature at an early age.

Chris: Love that.

Ashley: And then working all the way up through school age. We have afterschool programs and programs for kids on Saturdays and then our adults, we don’t want to forget about them, right? So, we have all of our 50 and better community. We have programs that are geared towards them, as well as even young adults that just want to expand their knowledge about the natural world.

Chris: That’s great. I’ll tell you. I have have grown up going in this place and driven by it so many times and a lot of, shared a lot of memories. I know that Easter is around the corner. You guys have an Easter egg hunt for the kids.

Ashley: So, we have something for every time of year. Just like nature ebbs and flows with the seasons, we really follow that with all of our programing. So, coming up this month, we’re really diving into our maple, maple sugaring celebration and, teaching folks about collecting maple sap and turning it into sirup, which is a really magical process. And then, yeah, as we get closer to those other, you know, times of year, spring, you know, things warm up and things are blooming. We’re going to be offering a few egg hunts. So, we have one for kids and families. And we also have a flashlight egg hunt for adults. That’s super fun. So, folks can get more info about that. Yeah. Coming up on the website.

Chris: So, I… How is a nature center like this funded?

Ashley: Yeah. So, we are a municipal nature center with the city of Farmington Hills. We are a part of the recreation division, Department of Special Services. So, we really get wonderful support from our community. But the nature center is also a really self-sufficient, I guess, you know, facility. So, we our programs bring in wonderful revenue that we’re able to then support more programs. So, the more programs that we do, and the more folks enjoy them, the more programs we can add on. So, we pride ourselves on that, but also the support from the community, you know, being a City of Farmington Hills facility and program.

Chris: That’s great. I’ll tell you; the nature center offers lots of program, from children to adults. Let’s dive into adults.

Ashley: Sure.

Chris: So, what is the Nature Education series?

Ashley: Right. So, we started. Yeah, we started the Nature Education series for adults a few years ago, really based on feedback from the community, that adults really wanted an opportunity to continue their education, to expand their knowledge about the natural world, and really dive into detail when it comes to different topics, from birds and plants to how do I have a native landscape in my backyard? What’s going on in the Rouge River? All those things. So, our Nature Education series for adults is great because there is a virtual option the first Tuesday of every month that folks can, just from their comfort of their own home, hop on zoom and attend a free, webinar, based on whatever topic it is. So, for example, the one coming up in March is maple Sugaring so they can learn more about the magic of maple sugaring from the comfort of their home. And then they can come the following Tuesday, the second Tuesday of the month, and participate in an in-person workshop where we dive deeper into the topic. We take advantage of that in-person connection and really make it hands on and interactive learning for them. So, there is a cost to the in-person workshop, but it’s it’s very affordable. It’s $5 if you’re a resident, $8 if you’re not. And we usually get a wonderful group of folks, sometimes we can bring in group experts to share their knowledge with the with the group. So, we try to keep it interesting and do new topics every month.

Chris: That’s great. I love that, the educational opportunities that you’re offering is sounds like immense. And you’re always trying to be innovative too. Now, I know with the the seniors in our community through the nature center, what are the educational opportunities? Let’s dive into that, because I know the thriving, going into the senior centers, a lot of our adults and seniors are thriving. They’re busier than you and I.

Ashley: Yeah, they are.

Chris: They really are. They have so much to do. And they and they have actually more friends than us. And if they when they go to the centers, that’s how they build relationships. So, I know this center is just the same thing over here, but just a little bit different than going to the senior center. I mean, there’s so much outside nature, right? It’s great for the cognitive stimulation. Right? So educational opportunities what what do we offer here.

Ashley: Right. So, we really focus on, you know, educational opportunities. But also, what you just mentioned, the really important social and interactive component of, you know, getting together with other, you know, folks that are interested in similar things and connecting on that and just having that regular interaction is so important for our senior community. So, one of our groups, our coffee and stroll, they meet every other Wednesday year-round. So that means in the winter, too. And they take a really wonderful, walk that’s led by our naturalist staff. And so that that naturalist is going to be sharing things about like seasonal change or what plants we can find or what animals or just, you know, unique topics, every, every walk with the group. And that group becomes so connected with not just each other socially, because then after they get to enjoy snacks and coffee, but they also …

Chris: Or grab lunch with a friend that they just made.

Ashley: Exactly. Yep. And they are super, they just celebrated one of the group members birthdays yesterday, and it was a big celebration for them. And that was really, really welcoming, and wonderful. Sure. For one of a newer member of the group. But then they also are so connected to the park and really, they’re the best naturalists that we have, more so than our staff.

Chris: They are telling you they’re calling out that a new flower is bloomed or.

Ashley: Yeah. So, it continues to challenge them cognitively as well because they’re really, you know, adding new skills and new knowledge all the time and keeping them sharp. And, you know, that and also giving them new hobbies. So, like we have folks that join our group that might not know a whole lot about nature. And then a year later, they’re going on a birding trip to some exotic location because now they’re really into birding or hiking.

Chris: But there’s birdwatching, right? And that’s just that’s just that’s an activity.

Ashley: Yeah. So, love it’s a great place to bird. We have some really dedicated birders. That Heritage Park is like their place to come. And also, this group of folks that come out for Nature Education series, for our coffee and stroll, we do a naturalist club. We do a wellness walk and talk. They’re some of our best volunteers, so they really find a home here in a spot where they’re needed and can make an impact. They can make an impact, make a difference. So, we have some the best group of dedicated volunteers, and a lot of those are from our 50 and better community.

Chris: And I knew, and that’s great. I, I thank you for sharing that. I so I think we’re we’re meant to have this podcast because I remember when I was a bio major at Oakland University, I took a bird class.

Ashley: Perfect.

Chris: I did, not to laugh, but it was pretty neat.

Ashley: You’re probably an expert.

Chris: I knew the part of the exams were is that they would they would play the bird sound and you have to say what bird it was. And so, can you imagine going on a walk with me and you’re hearing all the bird sounds and the person next to me, I’m like, oh, okay, that’s and they are like, how do you know that?

Ashley: Yeah, that’s the that’s the best way to do bird ID, by the sound. Honestly.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah. But imagine studying for it. You’re playing the sounds and all of a sudden, the doors shut, you hear. Caw Caw (Making bird sounds)

Ashley: It doesn’t sound weird to me at all, honestly. So, you just fit right in.

Chris: It’s like full circle. Everything happens for a reason, right? That’s great. So, I’ll be more connected to the adults more than, than we think. And so, are there any costs associated with the classes?

Ashley: So, we do have, some of our classes have a fee. We work really hard to keep the fees as low as possible while still covering the cost of like our instructors or our material. And then we try to provide free programing opportunities as well. So, a good example of that is the coffee and stroll is free. We encourage folks to for donations for the snacks and things like that, but it’s really just a super welcoming program for anyone to come and it’s free year-round. And then also it’s free to visit the nature center too, like it’s just open to anybody. And then the virtual program is free as well. And then some of our other programs, there’s a small fee. Like I said, the in-person workshop has a fee, our special events, sometimes we’ll have fees associated with them. But we do another program in the summer called Wellness Walk and Talks in partnership with Corewell, and that is a free program, too. And it’s just an opportunity for the community to connect with a medical professional but take a walk out on the trails and connect with the park at the same time.

So, it’s very fun.

Chris: Yeah. A sense of companionship I’m hearing and togetherness. You know.

Ashley: It’s super important.

Chris: And building relationships. This is, I think that we need to promote in this world. And so where can we find the schedule of events for this year coming up?

Ashley: Sure. So, every season, the city of Farmington Hills puts out, a seasonal activities guide. So that is like your best bet for all programing, not just here at the Nature Center, but all throughout our different departments. And that would include like fitness and recreation and cultural arts and, you know, theater and anything that you might be interested in. You can find programing in that activities guide. So that’s available digitally on the city’s website. City, Farmington Hills.

Chris: What’s the website?

Ashley: So, it’s just So, or even if you just search up City of Farmington Hills on your browser, you usually find it and there’s a ton of information on the website, anything from, how to register for a program to the programs that are available to just things that residents need to know about living in Farmington Hills. So that’s a great resource. So, you can access the guide digitally there. Or you can pick up a paper real, you know, version in your hands from any city facility. So, we always have them here and at all of our, city of Farmington Hills, places. So that’s a great place to find info. And then the nature center has a really great, um, email list that we try not to send too many emails. Every couple of weeks, we’ll send a little, hey, what’s happening at the Nature Center so that folks can kind of keep up with everything and yeah, not miss anything.

Chris: That’s great. And so, the classes that are virtual now, there’s virtual and then there’s in person. I just wanted to clarify. So, they have an opportunity to also watch in the comfort of their own home.

Ashley: Yeah. So, the virtual is typically more of a basic program. It’s 45 minutes. And there’s the links are available on Facebook as well as on the city’s registration page. So, it’s as easy as just clicking the link at the time, the start time and joining up, anybody is welcome. And then the in person dives deeper into the topic. So, again, taking advantage of that in-person component and really making it, Hands-On interactive. We might take a walk; we might do some cool hands-on demos or experiments. We might have a guest expert come in and share, like maybe research they’ve been doing or…

Chris: But you’ll record it and then give an opportunity for someone to watch it.

Ashley: So, the in-person workshop is not recorded, that is, and you come on down and experience that in person. The virtual one is is your time to do, you know, comfort of your own home, and get the information on that topic in a, you know, typically for virtual programing, we find that that 45 minutes to an hour is like the perfect length of time to engage and hold attention. So, I think it’s a great way to just spend like a Tuesday evening at home and just learning more about a nature topic.

Chris: That’s great. Yeah, that’s great. So not just education and resources but providing the support as well too. And so, can seniors volunteer at the nature center?

Ashley: Yeah. So, we have a really wonderful volunteering program for really all ages. So, we have even kids in middle school that come regularly and help with our animal care to, then our, our older adults that come and help with maybe, maybe they’re volunteering for one of our early childhood programs, or maybe they’re coming and just helping with animal care, helping with little things around the center. So, one of our programing programs that we do in December, it’s our wreath making workshop. And that program could not happen without our volunteers. They help collect all of the natural items from the park that we use to build our wreaths. And it’s so popular, it fills up every year, so rely super heavily on those volunteers. But it’s just so fun.

Chris: And the kids come too?

Ashley: Yeah, and it’s really just something different all the time. And I think that’s what our volunteers, a couple things I like best is that there is something different all the time. They get to connect not just with each other as volunteers in that group, but also with our staff and just really finding that they’re making a difference and having a place where they are needed and can be impactful.

Chris: You don’t know how how impactful it is really, because, what we teach, especially as a home care provider and with the adults and aging, is, is that the connection with the youth and the seniors. Not only do they only want to be connected with someone their age, but they love being around the youth because it gives them a sense of joy, you know, reminds them of even their their children or their grandchildren. And as they age, you know, they, life happens, and some move out of state, and they don’t always come often to visit them. So, coming here and being around the youth, give them that sense of joy, you know, and to be around them and also to is it’s great for the youth as well to to hear the wisdom, hear the wisdom like about their different life.

Ashley: They are different generation to connect with them. And I think that’s definitely true from our volunteers connecting with with the kiddos of all ages when they come and do our early childhood programs through our after-school program. Yeah, it makes a big impact on them. And we’re really fortunate to have, you know, their expertise and then be able to share their life experiences with our kids too.

Chris: Yeah, I think that’s so valuable. It’s good for the youth to be able to hear that because their generation, what they came from and what where they became and what they were and the resources they had. It’s good to hear it. So, what is the process for volunteering?

Ashley: Sure. There’s a few ways you can get started with us as a volunteer. The first thing I usually recommend to folks is joining us for one of our public volunteer workdays. And that’s for anybody, any age, any skill level. They can come the third Saturday of every month and volunteer, and we have indoor and outdoor activities. So that’s a great way to really get a feel for the nature center and if it’s a good fit for you. Beyond that, we if you want to volunteer in addition to or more often, you can fill out a volunteer form. Those are available on the website, and you can submit it to the nature center. And we set up a volunteer interview. Get to know you a little bit better. You can get to know us and see if it’s a good fit, and then go from there to see what you want to get involved with. Coming up in the spring, we do our annual volunteer Nature guide training, which is again a really great way to learn about, okay, what does it take to be a nature guide? Like, how can I take folks out on the trail? I really love hiking. I want to share my passion for nature with others, and it’s a quick, evening workshop that’s free and you don’t have to be a volunteer with us, but it’s a great way to learn more about it and decide, hey, is this what I’d like to do? So, we’ve had a really great groups we’ve had the last couple of years. We’ve had it and some of them have gotten really involved in our programing, and just helping with not just like our early childhood, but special events and, weekend programs and all kinds of things. So, I would recommend that for anybody that’s interested in helping with programing. And then if you’re not somebody that likes the public and getting and having to be part of the public eye, there’s a ton to do behind the scenes. So, if you enjoy gardening, if you like working with animals, if you enjoy even like hiking around and collecting data, we have our Blue Bird Monitor volunteers that go and visit all of our Bluebird boxes, and there’s a training coming up for that next month in March. So again, there’s really something for everybody. And the best way to get started is either by joining for a volunteer day or filling out that volunteer form and sending it over.

Chris: And it sounds like it’s seasonal, too.

Ashley: Yes, there’s something for every season.

Chris: There’s something for every season, because every, you know, there’s always changes with the environment, right? And birds. Animals.

Ashley: Yes. We definitely have an ebb and flow with the natural …

Chris: It’s everlasting. Yeah. And so, are there other opportunities for education through Farmington Hills Parks and Recs right now?

Ashley: Yes. So, we have a really wonderful and thriving 50 and better division within our recreation department. So, they have wonderful programs, most of which take place at the Costick Center, over on 11 mile. And so, they have all kinds of things from fitness to, and continuing education, to just, you know, getting together and socializing, playing cards, eating, eating a meal together. So that’s a really great resource. And we partner with them on a lot of programing. So, again, for those that are looking for more programs or more opportunities, that’s, that’s a really great resource for them. And then even just our recreation programs that we have at the beautiful Hawk Community Center, there’s a ton of really great things for seniors to to get involved with, whether it’s just working on their fitness and meeting other folks or volunteering, or we have the makerspace there. So, if you’re somebody that likes to do hobby, like if you like to do woodworking or sewing or just creating of any kind, the makerspace is a great spot for you to, you don’t have to buy equipment, you get trained on.

Chris: Classes for sewing too?

Ashley: Yeah, you take classes, you can be trained on things, and then you can just get a membership and go there. And work on things that you want to create. It’s wonderful.

Chris: Yeah. I was saying, one of the reasons also the helps my mom thrive is that she knits, and she needle points and she’s always done that. But there’s a sense of joy of of starting and finishing. So, it’s really great. So, some are looking for, sense of companionship or looking for resources or just, maybe to keep busy and volunteer. This is the place to be.

Ashley: That’s right.

Chris: I’m really, really happy that we’re able to connect with you.

Ashley: Yeah. So glad you came.

Chris: So valuable in our community. And I want I would love to everybody to get to know you. And if there I always say, you know, with when you’re a caregiver and you’re caring for your family and your parents. It’s, you know, hard to come up with hobbies and interests that they like, you know.

Ashley: Or new things to kind of get them experiencing something that they haven’t done before. It can be really challenging. Yeah.

Chris: Yeah. You know.

Ashley: It’s good.

Chris: It’s really good. It’s promoting good. And that’s that’s what we promote at Affinity is we promote doing good in the community. And so that’s what I wanted to say in this podcast before we end it is that if you are looking for something different and you’re with your parents and you’re caring for them as a caregiver, and they might even have a disability or maybe going through cancer too. Take them out of their home environment, bring them to the nature center.

Ashley: Yeah, we love to see visitors. Even if you’re not here for a program and you’re just stopping in, we love to hear from you and what questions you have and just get outside and connect with the natural world.

Chris: Thank you for your time.

Ashley: Thanks. It was good having having you here.

Chris: Thank you.