Take a hike: Two Cleveland nonprofits lead city kids into the great outdoors


A group with SYATT tries out kayaking on the Cuyahoga River in the Flats. SYATT co-founder Ebony Hood is in the middle. Photo Courtesy of SYATT.

A group with SYATT tries out kayaking on the Cuyahoga River in the Flats. SYATT co-founder Ebony Hood is in the middle. Photo Courtesy of SYATT.

Children need more than just food, clothing and shelter. They also need time in nature. 

For some in Northeast Ohio, though, that’s almost a luxury. They may have the basics of life but are missing or don’t feel welcome to take part in what others around the region routinely enjoy, and probably take for granted — abundant time outdoors. 

What’s more, they’re paying the price, in the form of chronic stress, physical and behavioral health issues and reinforced negative stereotypes. 


A recent

A recent “Outdoor Connection Kit” distributed by the Footpath Foundation helped children build bird-feeders. Photo Courtesy of the CMHA.

Enter two local non-profits, Footpath Foundation and See You at the Top (SYATT). Their missions are to fill that gap, to see that young Clevelanders get their moments in the sun, along with all its attendant perks, just like everyone else. 

“The benefits of nature are just immense,” said Mary Macias, president and co-founder of the University Circle-based Footpath Foundation, now in its fifth year. 

“We envision a world where every child benefits from nature, no matter their race or income,” Macias said. “Our focus is on getting to kids who don’t have those opportunities.”

The gap, in some cases, is startlingly wide. 

Cleveland may be the “forest city,” graced with an “emerald necklace” of parks. The Trust for Public Land may rank Cleveland highly for ready walkability to parks and playgrounds. 

Still, Cleveland ranks below the national average for recreational land use, and Macias, a native of Detroit, said plenty of the elementary schoolers on the hikes, camping trips and other excursions her group leads have never walked in the woods, fished, or ventured beyond their local playgrounds, many of which are in disrepair. 

One child, Macias said, remarked on the new feeling of stepping off pavement, while others have asked how so many trees came to be in one place and whether the public park they were visiting was open to them or cost anything. For them, Macias said, it’s mostly a question of awareness. They just need someone to make the introduction.  

“We find our niche to be helping kids make that initial connection,” she said. “They just don’t necessarily know of the green spaces that aren’t even that far from them.”

Getting closer to nature

They also don’t necessarily have the tools they need to fully appreciate the experience. Sometimes, even in nature, a little assembly is required. That’s why Footpath also arranges and distributes “Outdoor Connection Kits” to second- through sixth-grade residents of Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority properties. 


A group with SYATT picked up litter while on a hike at Arthur Johnston Park in Cleveland during a recent Canalway Partners RiverSweep event. Photo Courtesy of SYATT.

A group with SYATT picked up litter while on a hike at Arthur Johnston Park in Cleveland during a recent Canalway Partners RiverSweep event. Photo Courtesy of SYATT.

The first kit taught kids to build birdhouses and the latest facilitated birdwatching, and included a child-size pair of binoculars, a bag of bird-seed and a guide from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. 

In both cases, the goal was the same — to promote a hobby that can be practiced anywhere, and train kids to slow down, be patient and focus, whatever the task at hand. Most Footpath activities entail emotional lessons, Macias said, noting that birdwatching “allows you to be mindful, to notice things you wouldn’t normally notice…You don’t realize how impactful that time is.”

Ken Wood, director of communications for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northeast Ohio and a Footpath Foundation board member, said he’s seen firsthand the effects time in and around nature has on children. 

The young birders, fishers and campers under his watch evince “a new sense of resilience and bravery for having done a new thing,” Wood said. “They come back a little more confident in themselves. They see themselves as being more capable.”

Kristie Groves, director of resident services for the CMHA, said that while most children are used to playing outside, “When they have something specific to do, it’s always different. When they have something intentional to do, they really love it.” 

Representation matters


A recent

A recent “Outdoor Connection Kit” distributed by the Footpath Foundation helped children build bird-feeders. Photo Courtesy of the CMHA.

Ebony Hood, co-founder of SYATT, also believes strongly in the power of the outdoors but has a separate, parallel objective. With her group, she’s striving not only to promote time in nature but also to demolish racial barriers and encourage broader participation in a wide range of sports and other healthy activities. 

It all started with the Winter Olympics. An African-American raised as a traveler and skier, she was struck by the preponderance of white athletes at the games, and resolved to address the imbalance. In 2009, with help from her mother and sister, “See You at the Top” was born.

Recruitment, at first, was tough. The children in her family’s church, with whom she started, regarded skiing as “white people stuff,” Hood said, and were wary of hitting the slopes at Boston Mills Brandywine Ski Resort in Summit County.  

Their hesitation didn’t last long. Like most people, Hood said, her church friends had a blast once they got the hang of it, and soon she repeated the pattern for other activities with perceived racial barriers, such as rock-climbing, kayaking, tennis and running. 

Now she aspires to lead a group through the process of scuba diving certification, and SYATT is seeing participation from suburban families who she said have the resources to do whatever they wish but still feel out of place in certain arenas. 

“We figure it’s so important to put ourselves in spaces where you don’t normally see us,” said Hood, a Lee-Harvard resident. 


Two participants in the SYATT (See You at the Top) program learn to ski and snowboard at Boston Mills/Brandywine Ski Resort. Photo Courtesy of SYATT.

Two participants in the SYATT (See You at the Top) program learn to ski and snowboard at Boston Mills/Brandywine Ski Resort. Photo Courtesy of SYATT.

“It’s a matter of representation,” she said. “If you never see yourself in those places, why would you attend?” 

SYATT and Footpath Foundation aren’t the only local groups looking to get kids in nature. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Neighborhood Connections offered several “Get Outside” grants promoting gardening, sledding, and hiking activities. 

But there’s a difference. Both SYATT and Footpath Foundation prioritize accessibility. They know that even if a child enjoys skiing, or knows of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, they may not have the means to get there, or to pay for the activity. Many of the sports on SYATT’s radar are pricey, and even low-budget activities often entail some expense.  

That’s why most of Footpath’s revenue goes to transportation, and much of Hood’s goes to passes, lessons and renting or buying equipment to add to a storage unit already full of bike and ski helmets, inline skates and other key outdoor gear. 

Most of Hood’s time, meanwhile, is spent working. Like most parents involved with SYATT, she has to work for a living, and has little time for the sports she loves. She just wants to ensure that more children who look like her gain exposure to those sports in the first place. 

“We do this out of love,” Hood said. “Poverty is real, and we’re no better off than they are. It’s not like we’ve made it. But when the tide comes in, all of us rise.”

Zachary Lewis is a freelance writer based in Cleveland. He covers an array of subjects but specializes in the arts.

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