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Word of mouth turned outdoor playtime at Detroit elementary school into popular program

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 7/2/2022 Scott Talley, Detroit Free Press

At the end of the 2007-08 school year, Maria Adams-Lawton had an important choice to make, and she relied on the same multiplication skills she taught in her classroom to come to a life-changing decision. 

“It was a choice between touching the lives of 30 students at a time in a classroom or having a chance to positively impact 3,000 lives,” Adams-Lawton said, while explaining how she went from teaching fourth grade math at Golightly Education Center to turning her attention fully to Healthy Kidz Inc., a nonprofit she had started three years earlier. “Exposing, and giving as many children as possible positive opportunities, that’s what it’s all about because you never know what door it will open.”

To be clear, Adams-Lawton “loved” her time at Golightly, a Detroit public school located in Midtown, where Adams-Lawton worked for 25 years beginning as a paraprofessional when she was a co-op student attending Wayne State University. In fact, because Adams-Lawton so desperately wanted Golightly’s elementary students to receive a complete education — mind and body — the veteran math teacher turned her designated prep hours into outdoor playtime for children who did not have a gym class.

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Isaiah Pelt, 24, of Detroit, is a camp counselor at the What's Good In My Hood Outdoor Adventure Camp and runs past campers playing flag football at the Tindal Recreation Center in Detroit on Thursday, June 30, 2022. © Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press Isaiah Pelt, 24, of Detroit, is a camp counselor at the What's Good In My Hood Outdoor Adventure Camp and runs past campers playing flag football at the Tindal Recreation Center in Detroit on Thursday, June 30, 2022.

“When I started taking kids outside during school hours, I would teach them all the games I grew up playing like kickball and soccer,” the 55-year-old Adams-Lawton said. “Then one day a student asked if we could play soccer after school, and then soccer led to baseball and football, and other sports and activities after school. The word got out and other schools started calling and they began sending their kids. I looked up and we had about 200 kids in our after-school program and we were still hearing from other schools and parents across the city.” 

What started on the grounds of Golightly lives on today, as witnessed by the What’s Good In My Hood Outdoor Adventure Camp, which kicked off Monday for roughly 150 kids ages 4 to 14 at Tindal Recreation Center (10301 W. Seven Mile), where Healthy Kidz Inc. is headquartered. From Monday through Friday, for up to 10 hours daily, for eight consecutive weeks, camp participants will be engaged in an array of activities including arts and crafts; dance; drama; dodgeball; kickball; martial arts; flag football; educational-enrichment activities, like Friday’s field trip to the Imagination Station in Toledo; and more.  Through all of the games and activities she has participated in at the camp that took on a new name in 2021,  Adams-Lawton says she has never stopped being an educator.

“We say the ‘great outdoors,’ and I truly believe you can learn so much outdoors,’ said Adams-Lawton, who credited her grandmother Georgia Adams and great-grandmother Rochelle Redd, for providing her with experiences that made her an ‘outdoors girl,” while growing up in Detroit’s Russell Woods neighborhood. “With this camp, I go old-school and try to imitate experiences I had growing up. In the past, I’ve had the kids go on a scavenger hunt in the neighborhood and they had to take pictures to prove they found everything that was left for them. They’ve taken naps in tents, but first they pitch the tent themselves. They study the trees, acorns and leaves and learn how things grow, and we have laid on our backs and talked about the clouds.  

Pieper Hammond, 7, of Detroit, right, reacts with other campers while playing Jenga during the What's Good In My Hood Outdoor Adventure Camp at the Tindal Recreation Center in Detroit on Thursday, June 30, 2022. © Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press Pieper Hammond, 7, of Detroit, right, reacts with other campers while playing Jenga during the What's Good In My Hood Outdoor Adventure Camp at the Tindal Recreation Center in Detroit on Thursday, June 30, 2022.

“It’s all about getting children to think and that applies to outdoor camping activities as well. The kids love s’mores, but to make them they have to find out what sticks work best for starting a fire. Also, rolling a sleeping bag is an art in itself, which requires practice and thought.”        


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Thanks to support from the Michigan Department of Education and the Old Newsboys Goodfellow Fund of Detroit, Adams-Lawton says her camp was more accessible to Detroit youths this summer, and that greater accessibility included the awarding of scholarships that allowed 35 scholarship recipients to attend this year’s camp free of charge. On Wednesday, a grateful Adams-Lawton revealed that this is not the first time her community has come to her aid. 

“He changed my life,” said Adams-Lawton on Wednesday, referring to former UAW-Ford Vice President Jimmy Settles, who, after meeting Adams-Lawton for the first time after she was awarded a 15-year operations management agreement (during the summer of 2015) to manage Tindal, challenged her to “dream bigger” and then led an effort by UAW-Ford to help refurbish the center. 

Other game-changers for Adams-Lawton included Kathy Bridge, Sue Norander, Thomas Wilcher and Joshua Hughes. Bridge and Norander, leaders within the city of Detroit Recreation Department, provided Adams-Lawton direction and encouragement, as she twice submitted an extensive development plan for then-closed and grossly neglected Robert Tindal Recreation Center. Wilcher, during the same period of time he was coaching one of the top high school football teams in the state at Cass Tech, accompanied a busload of his players to Tindal, where those players manually took up bad floor tiles from the gymnasium floor to make way for a new floor — and a new beginning — at the center. And then there was Hughes, who may not be as well-known in the community as the other people Adams-Lawton praised, but he is certainly equally appreciated by her.

“Joshua Hughes is a young man who was in the (Michigan) DNR (Department of Natural Resources) Summer Youth Employment Program and he was with me when I walked into Tindal after my development plan was accepted,” Adams-Lawton recalled. “There was so much water in the building. I had water on my good shoes and tears in my eyes, and I said: ‘Fellas, I can’t do this; I need to call the city of Detroit and tell them this isn’t going to happen.’ And Joshua said: ‘Ms. L, this is your dream and we got your back!’ Those boys worked day-in and day-out, sunup to sundown, helping me to get the building back in condition for public use. Joshua, and everyone that helped me during those days, they made my dream come true.”     

But Adams-Lawton confided that her “dream” alongside Detroit youths the past seven years has not been attached to much sleep. 

“I haven’t slept a whole night since the day we started fixing up Tindal,” said Adams-Lawton, who also conducts a Michigan DNR Summer Youth Employment Program for ages 16 to 19 at Tindal through her nonprofit. “I was a teacher, so I used to have weekends and holidays off, along with the summer and evenings, but now, I’m never off.”

On Thursday afternoon at Robert C. Gmeiner Park (surrounding Tindal), a spot where Adams-Lawton has done some of her best outdoor work teaching and inspiring neighborhood summer campers, two beneficiaries of her work expressed their appreciation for someone who is seemingly always on for kids.

Amayah Martin, 21, of Detroit, paints gray on the hand of Jordyn McCall, 6, of Detroit, for an art class project at the What's Good In My Hood Outdoor Adventure Camp at the Tindal Recreation Center in Detroit on Thursday, June 30, 2022. © Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press Amayah Martin, 21, of Detroit, paints gray on the hand of Jordyn McCall, 6, of Detroit, for an art class project at the What's Good In My Hood Outdoor Adventure Camp at the Tindal Recreation Center in Detroit on Thursday, June 30, 2022.

“You can see my smile, even through this mask, because it’s a joy for me to be here and I’m big on bringing the fun back to our kids during the summer,” said camp co-director Aurion Brown, 23, the pride of nearby 6 Mile and Hubbell and a proud graduate of Central Michigan University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in child development. “I’ve known Ms. Lawton since I was 5-years-old playing soccer for her, and I was a camper in this program going back to when it was called the Summer Jam Day Camp. I look at these kids as they’re dancing and singing and it takes me back to when I was a part of these moments and the fun I had at this camp meeting kids from other schools and hanging out with the counselors. And now I’m in a position to build on Ms. Lawton’s legacy, which is a legacy of teaching, because from the small ages to the bigger ages, from the first day to the last day, it’s always a learning moment.”

And with Adams-Lawton’s brand of learning, "loving" bonds are also formed, as the camp’s other co-director, Jaylen Hayden, explained.     

“I have always loved this camp and I have always loved Ms. Lawton,” said the 26-year-old Hayden, who promised Thursday that within two weeks people walking near Gmeiner Park will be able to smell hamburgers, roasted potatoes and s’mores as they are prepared by campers with his supervision. “When I was in school, I loved how Ms. Lawton always took us on field trips when we had half days. So now, it’s amazing, and a great pleasure, to be able to do the things she did for me for the kids at this camp.”     

Scott Talley is a native Detroiter, a proud product of Detroit Public Schools and lifelong lover of Detroit culture in all of its diverse forms. In his second tour with the Free Press, which he grew up reading as a child, he is excited and humbled to cover the city’s neighborhoods and the many interesting people who define its various communities. Contact him at: stalley@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @STalleyfreep. Read more of Scott's stories at www.freep.com/mosaic/detroit-is/.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Word of mouth turned outdoor playtime at Detroit elementary school into popular program

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