A Teen’s Love of Her Local Park and Storytelling Leads to National Award

October 1, 2014, Department, by Richard J. Dolesh

Volunteers contribute to green infrastructure stormwater management project at Hannah Park in Gahanna, Ohio.Park and recreation agencies that are looking for creative and innovative ways to partner with local schools on conservation and environmental education can learn a lot from the story of Bethany Bella, a teen from Gahanna, Ohio, who chose to report on her community park department’s green infrastructure project for an international environmental journalism contest for youth. 

Bethany is a highly motivated young person who hopes to eventually get a job related to environmental conservation and journalism. “I have always been an environmental advocate. My family calls me the ‘Recycle Queen.’ I have always had an interest in environmental things — recycling, saving the ocean, protecting animals — pretty much anything that is green. I know this will be a part of my career choices. As soon as I found out that you could study the environment and make it into a career choice, I said that this is definitely for me,” she says. “As a senior in high school, I was looking for any opportunities for financial assistance. My science teacher suggested that I enter the Young Reporters for the Environment-USA contest.” 

Young Reporters for the Environment (YRE) is a program of the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) that engages youth in more than 25 countries around the world in reporting on environmental and sustainability issues and proposing solutions through written, photographic and video journalism.The U.S. sponsor of the YRE program is the National Wildlife Federation, one of NRPA’s partners in conservation.

Bethany was intrigued by the contest, but challenged by the criteria. “It had to be a local environmental issue,” she says. “I was interested, but I wasn’t sure I could find the right story.” Then she realized what she was looking for might be found in her local park. “I live right across the street from Hannah Park. I ride my bike there and I visit it regularly.” 

She approached the director of parks and recreation, Tony Collins, who referred her to Deputy Director Troy Euton.

“I was looking at the history of the park and researching other facts,” Bethany explains, “and that’s when I found out about the groundwater in this area, and learned how the park and recreation department developed bioswales and other aspects of green infrastructure to deal with stormwater and runoff.”

“We get a lot of high school students who approach us about projects that they are working on,” Euton says. “This is common for us. What was unique about her project idea was that she started asking about Hannah Park, one of our parks that won awards from the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association.” Euton continues, “I thought it was kind of neat that this young girl was asking about the design and construction of the park. It was obvious to me that she had a genuine interest. We don’t often see this from a high school student, usually only at the collegiate level.”

“I wanted to write about the town and the history of it,” Bethany says. “I have pride in my town. People know that Hannah Park is great, but there is another aspect of the park and why it is valuable to our community. I wanted to introduce the environmental issues — how groundwater is protected and how stormwater is handled.”

Hannah Park is a 34.5-acre community park that features tennis and basketball courts, a playground, an athletic field, a rentable shelter, walking trails and a good amount of green space. However, there were significant design issues when the agency began to develop plans to build the park. “The problem was water,” Euton says. “We needed to get rid of it, but we didn’t just want to pipe it away — that’s the old way of looking at things.” 

“This was a new park, built from the ground up,” Euton continues. “When it came to stormwater, we wanted a more natural treatment. This was a different approach to what we have historically done — getting stormwater runoff into pipes and away from the site. We chose to use bioswales as a principal means of slowing and treating stormwater. We went above and beyond the minimum required by state and federal regulations.” 

Hannah Park was originally planned to be about 26 acres in size, but the opportunity presented itself to acquire an additional 9 acres from a developer who was building a subdivision adjacent to the park. “The developer would have had to cut over half the existing forest to meet stormwater management requirements,” Euton says. “There was a nice mature stand of beech, shellbark hickory and other valuable species on the tract. We were designing the park with three treatment ponds, the largest of which was 3 acres, and we were able to do a deal with the developer to sell us the property for a friendly price, giving us a real asset for the park, and at the same time allowing him to utilize a portion of the capacity of one of these ponds for stormwater management for the subdivision.”

Bethany dove into her project for the YRE competition. “The key points to me were that I could use video,” Bethany says. “The written word is not enough in our digital society. You need pictures as well as words. Using video really helps tell that story better. Hannah Park is by no means a big national park, but this park is really helping the environment here in our community. I wanted to point out that sustainability can take place anywhere.” 

“I won first place in my age category,” Bethany continues. “My takeaway is definitely that there can be sustainability anywhere, and you can help the environment wherever you live. You don’t have to help the environment in the Amazon or in the redwood forests. You can do it where you live. The people of our country need to recognize that and be aware of it. And I hope I can do more to bring this awareness to people. ”

If your agency is looking to do more to promote environmental education and appreciation of conservation, find a Bethany Bella in your community. As for her long-term plans as she enters college this year? “I want to work for National Geographic.”

Richard J. Dolesh is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation and Parks.