Old and young, new neighbors or long-time residents — every Wednesday morning at 11 a.m., they don walking shoes and meet at United Church Outreach Ministry’s (UCOM) offices in Wyoming, Mich., for a jaunt around the neighborhood.
The walking club was the brainchild of UCOM staff. When a weekly “Sit and Be Fit” class led by a local YMCA employee ended, a new exercise plan was needed, and a walking club was the perfect low-cost choice.
“The community walking club is small and intimate, but participation is open to any and all that are interested in taking a break and exploring the beauty and nature of our neighborhood,” says the Rev. Bruce Roller, executive director, who adds that participants walk to and around nearby Marquette Park. “This is an old neighborhood, so there are a lot of trees,” he says.
UCOM, a covenanted ministry of the UCC Michigan Conference, provides material and education assistance to southwestern Kent County to help its neighbors meet basic needs, improve quality of life, and promote self-sufficiency. Its many programs include food pantries and farm stands; Project Fresh, which distributes $20-$40 per person in coupons to low-income older adults for use at local farmers markets; a clothing pantry; health screenings; programs to enhance financial literacy and work skills training; and gardening via gardening plots.
Roller says the walkers’ destination — Marquette Park — “houses 12 of our 4×8 community garden plots,” so during season, the walkers can observe the fruits of the gardeners’ labors.
Rain or shine, the walkers never miss a week. Currently, some 6 to 10 people participate, even during the blustery Michigan winters. “Most of the winter, we will bundle up and walk,” Roller says. “If it is really cold — like the polar vortex last year — we may choose to walk at a local mall.”
In addition to making exercise fun, Roller says the program has added perks for the walkers, as they “build community through conversation and a shared interest.”
While a UCOM staff member organizes the club, various walkers have led the weekly walks. Once, “a 4 year old led our group while our 60-year-old walkers followed behind sharing stories, proving there is no age limit on being active,” Roller says. “Even animals are joining in, as a friendly neighbor and his dog walked with the group on a recent outing.”
The program also has unforeseen benefits for participants. Roller tells of a young teen named Elijah, who has a cognitive disability. Elijah “began walking with us, along with his mother. After the first couple of times, he offered to lead the group, and has been doing it ever since,” says Roller. “His mother speaks proudly of the confidence he is gaining by doing this, and the other walkers are getting to know him personally, and encourage his leadership of the group.”
Roller hopes the program will attract more walkers. “Everyone is invited, so we are often joined by neighbors who were already out walking or who just saw us and wanted to walk with us,” he says. “We advertise on our social media and the newsletter so that our supporters in and outside the neighborhood may also choose to join.
“Our hope is that this group will grow, and that new and lasting bonds will be formed as our neighbors explore nature, exercise, and build community together.”