By Kelly Sheridan
The Meridian Times Staff Reporter
The smell of a bonfire fills the air while playful screams echo in the distance. About 15 parents surround the fire pit watching their kids run up a giant hill, and sled down the same hill lit by the moon and some help from overhead lights.
Despite the below-freezing temperatures, the biannual Moonlight Sledding event in Okemos was under way recently. Although, for Recreational Specialist Mike Devlin, the turnout wasn’t quite as large as it usually is.
“This is a huge family event,” Devlin said. “Obviously its a little chilly today — there’s supposed to be temperatures below zero but, usually I have like 300 people out here.”
The Moonlight Sledding event is one of several recreational events held throughout Meridian Township year-round, even during the wintertime. Devlin says it is important to keep kids active, so if he has the chance to give people an opportunity to keep kids active he is going to take it.
“This is a simple little event where it is a little tiring, going up and down the hill, but it’s fun,” Devlin said.
While the weather might have deterred some sledders, others weren’t going to let it halt their plans, especially Okemos resident and father of three children, Larry Gerhardt.
“You have to be careful,” Gerhardt said, shrugging his shoulders at the temperature as if it wasn’t a big deal. “But, we’ve been coming here for the past four or five years.”
However, with Michigan’s intense winters, it can be hard to encourage kids to get outside and be active.
“Michigan is third in the nation for obese children and I always emphasize that to our general public,” Devlin said. “Every opportunity I can give to these parents to keep these kids active, I’ll take.”
It is hard for some people to realize what all these parks have to offer, said Michigan State University professor of sustainable parks, recreation and tourism, Dr. Chuck Nelson.
“Part of the challenge with people is they kind of take their personal perspective which is ‘oh its cold I don’t want to do anything’ and they think there’s nothing to do,” Nelson said. “But actually there’s a lot of people out there to encourage them and help them out and do fun stuff, for all age groups.”
While the community does everything they can to keep these events running, there are times when the weather takes over. The first Moonlight Sledding event that was scheduled for mid-January was canceled, due to the lack of snow. Then, a special weekend event where families are able to fish for free without having a license had to be cancelled because of concern with the lakes not being frozen enough.
“A lot of our events are weather-dependent,” Devlin said.
The Meridian Township Park system consists of 904 acres of land in 29 different sites and is a huge selling point for residents, according to Gerhardt. Even if it means having to pay taxes that contributes to the upkeep of these parks: 18 percent of yearly taxes are allocated to township expenditures, which includes land preservation and parks and recreation.
“My wife came from a township that didn’t have a single park,” Gerhardt said. “So, in real estate, that was a huge selling point when moving here.”
Meridian Township has a budget of approximately $660,000 dedicated to its Parks and Recreation services for the 2016 season. Although this doesn’t go as far as many would expect with different expenses and employee benefits, according to Nelson, this is one of the biggest reasons why Meridian Township is so successful.
“Meridian Township has a good park system, it also has pretty high value property so they can afford that,” Nelson said.
The multiple different parks here do many different things to uphold the values of keeping people active, all year round. The Harris Nature Center has skis residents can rent to cross-country ski through the trails and the Recreational Services Department already has its next year of events planned out. While Michigan weathers may be bad, they are not stopping Meridian Township residents from keeping active.
“I think that in the Park and Recreation business, we really look upon on people’s health and enjoyment as linked together,” Nelson said. “We don’t think we’re just in the health business, we don’t think we’re just in the fun business, we think we’re in the well-being business.”