Increasing access to inclusive and thriving public spaces is a core part of our mission at the Gilbert Family Foundation and a major area of focus this summer. These past few months have been a whirlwind of events celebrating newly renovated parks and recreation spaces. We also recently announced our $15M commitment to the Unified Greenway Campaign and attended the official grand opening of the Southwest Greenway, an integral part of the Joe Louis Greenway that connects the Detroit Riverfront to Michigan Central and surrounding neighborhoods.

While we are passionate about investing in public spaces, we know we’re not alone. There are so many Detroit residents who are deeply committed to Detroit’s spaces and we wanted to celebrate their passion. That’s how Our Backyard Detroit was born.

Together with Green Living Science, we created Our Backyard Detroit to support interested Detroit residents with resources and opportunities to help elevate our local parks and green spaces.

Our Backyard Detroit empowers local residents to lead the way in enhancing and advocating for the green spaces they cherish,” said JJ Velez, Director of Public Spaces at the Gilbert Family Foundation. 

We developed this program to find ways to connect Detroiters back to nature and to their green spaces, said Natalie Jakub, Executive Director of Green Living Science. “We have a lot of Detroiters who don’t necessarily live in single family homes with backyards, so we wanted them to see all parks and green spaces as their backyards. [This creates] a sense of belonging and stewardship that they feel towards our green spaces.”

Championing Efforts Close to Home

Our Backyard Detroit is a network of local “Park Champions” who are dedicated to caring for the parks in their neighborhoods by promoting a healthier and greener city. Park Champions are paid a monthly stiped and given a grant to organize community events, host recycling education workshops, lead litter cleanups, and more. They also bridge the gap between the city and public community spaces. Most importantly, all Park Champions reside near the park they choose to serve.

“I live up against Balduck Park. It’s actually in my backyard,” he said, laughing. “So when I was presented with the opportunity to get involved with the program, I knew this was for me! I’m just excited to be involved with the parks. I plan a very ambitious calendar of events. I’m trying to do a lot; I’m trying to get people excited. I want to help the park reach its full potential.”

Trevor Karty

Karty’s enthusiasm isn’t unusual for Park Champions, and it was exactly the kind of energy that Green Living Science was looking for when meeting Park Champion applicants.

“We’re seeing a lot of residents who are excited to have these resources right here with ‘feet on the street programming,’” said Kamryn Gardener, Community Engagement Coordinator at Green Living Science. Gardener works closely with the Our Backyard Detroit Champions and is deeply involved in developing the program. “We’re implementing programmatic education opportunities, offering support to our Champions, and just making sure that residents understand the intention behind the program to activate our green spaces and create a love and appreciation of our parks,” she said.

For Our Backyard Detroit Champions, their involvement in the program helped to extend they were already doing with additional resources and connections. Truly, “Champions” are apt titles for these park stewards, as they are residents who are deeply involved in the community, well-known in their respective neighborhoods for their commitment to the parks and helping out their neighbors.

LaTonya Thomas

That’s definitely the case for LaTonya Thomas, who is a Park Champion for Ella Fitzgerald Park. “I’m a third-generation member of this community. I’m also a precinct delegate and president of my block club. So I’m in it” she said. “I’m registered at the City of Detroit Parks Coalition and they had an event, and that’s where I first learned about Our Backyard Detroit. I was very excited to get involved. It feels excellent to have someone match my energy. For me, it’s a win-win.”

Walter Bailey

Park Champion Walter Bailey has a similar story about how we got to be a Champion for Jayne Field and Lasky Park. “As an artist, I work to improve neighborhoods with art,” he said. “A friend of mine knew about the program and said, ‘This might be a good marriage with you and Green Living Science.’ I felt that what I was doing as an artist related directly to parks… so I think it’s a natural fit.”

Kaytea Moreno Elst

Kaytea Moreno Elst, another Champion who supports Pingree Park, explained that she was approached by different community leaders and block clubs to participate in Our Backyard Detroit.  They all came to me and they’re like, ‘Kaytea, it’s what you already are doing in the park. Why don’t you just go ahead and put that title on it and continue doing what we already do?’” For Moreno Est, the decision was a no-brainer. “This program takes what I did before to the next level – now I have extra support linking the missing pieces.”

Lesley Gant

And for many of the Park Champions, Our Backyard Detroit is as much about building community as it is about preserving and beautifying parks and recreation areas.

“There’s nothing like [this program] in Detroit. This was a great opportunity to take what we learn and bring it back to the community and encourage our neighbors by saying, ‘Hey, this is our park. We live here. Let’s work together to keep it clean,’” said Lesley Gant, the Champion for Zussman Park. “And it just built that connection. It creates a family environment and I just love it.”


This sentiment was shared by Ra’Marie, who is a Park Champion for Stoepel Park #1. Ra’Marie added that the program also gave her something else – peace of mind that there were other people out there who care about her park as much as she does. “Knowing that organizations like the Gilbert Family Foundation and Green Living Science are investing in programs like this, it’s like a weight off my shoulders, because it means there are people who really believe in… our community, creating the hope and stability that we all need – to breathe, and feel centered, and feel free,” she said.

Ultimately, the goal of Our Backyard Detroit is one shared by all of us: to feel included, cared for, and connected to each other in spaces that allow us to not only grow but thrive.