When we think back to our own childhoods in the Ohio Valley, we likely find our memories are inextricably intertwined with the green hills of Oglebay Park. There are many storied traditions. Some families spend every Thanksgiving in a cabin. Others never miss the fireworks on the third of July. If a Wheeling child learns to ice skate, it probably happens at Wheeling Park, and once upon a time, many of us spent an entire summer working up the courage to go off the high dive at Wheeling Park Pool.

A Lifetime of Memories

Think back on your family’s Oglebay Park memories. And then consider the developmental importance of play and time in nature. Play is essential to children’s development. Organizations ranging from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights agree: kids need to play outdoors. It’s imperative for cognitive, physical and emotional growth. Increasingly, children suffer from a lack of outdoor time. This deficit can manifest as anxiety, frustration, poor test scores and unstable moods. We know kids need to be out there.

Yet, taking a family of four or five to the zoo for a day may not be in the budget. Times are tough for families all over the country, and Ohio County is no exception. What happens, then, when hard-working families simply cannot afford a day of play? How do you explain economics to a child who wants to go for a swim or meet a red panda?

Access for Families

The Oglebay Foundation’s Access to the Parks program exists so that no Ohio County parent has to say “no.” Thanks to the help of generous donors, the foundation raises over $200,000 each year so families can visit the park and enjoy the facilities free of charge. The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) helps to qualify families based on income levels and mails out a letter of application. Families who bring this letter to the park get free ID passes for the year. The passes include Wheeling and Oglebay Park activities such as the zoo, museums, food, golf, the pool and Schenk Lake paddle-boating and kayaking. In the winter, folks can visit the ski slope or the ice skating rink, with rentals included. Togetherness is emphasized; the park feels strongly that parents should get to enjoy these days with their children.

“We believe in family recreation, those times together,” said Eriks Janelsins, president and CEO of the Oglebay Foundation. “I think it’s that idea of the family coming together. And we know that there are lots of really healthy things that happen when families are recreating together, and they’re playing, and they’re out in nature. And, you know, they’re doing all those things that we probably took for granted as kids.”

Access for Kids

During the week when parents may need to work, children can still enjoy a supervised day at the parks. Through the Oglebay Children’s Association, the Oglebay trolley visits a different playground in Ohio County each day and picks neighborhood kids up for time at the parks. They visit different facilities (e.g. tennis, the zoo, the riding stable) each day. Kids can come from other neighborhoods, too. All are welcome to take advantage of activities in both parks.

Transportation for some families may be a challenge, but kids can often walk safely to their neighborhood playground where they’ll be met by counselors who will spend the day with them. The City of Wheeling covers the cost of those supervisors.

Currently, 56 percent of the children in Ohio County qualify to enroll in Access to the Parks. The Oglebay Foundation is pleased to see Ohio County residents taking advantage of the program. The park issued 1.500 passes last summer and 15,000 visits were made via the program.

 

Helping Kids in Need

The Ohio Valley is blessed with an abundance of organizations devoted to at-risk youth. The Oglebay Foundation ensures that children in these programs have the same access to the park that the public does. Youth Services System, Crittenton Services, Laughlin Memorial Chapel and the Children’s Home of Wheeling are just a few of the agencies that can contact Oglebay about free access.

“We work with 26 social service agencies,” Janelsins said. “If those agencies call and say, ‘We want to bring a bus load of kids out and enjoy the zoo,’ we say, ‘OK, we will fund those costs so that you can participate.’”

Youth at The Children’s Home of Wheeling who have no family to visit at the holidays enjoy Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter dinner at Oglebay. Similarly, Kathy Szafran, president and CEO of Critten Services Inc., is grateful for the opportunity Oglebay provides, both for recreation and during the holiday season.

“For the longest time, we’ve always used Oglebay Park,” Szafran said. “It’s really been our go-to place for holiday dinners. Some of our girls don’t have homes to go to during the holidays, and Oglebay has always welcomed us to join them for dinner at the lodge. They do Christmas, and they do Mother’s Day and Easter, which is really greatly appreciated. And in addition, our girls utilize the swimming pool in the summer and all the other activities. They get passes up to the swimming pool, and of course, it’s just so beautiful out there. We take our girls up there for hiking and fishing and for all the other amenities the park offers.” As a trauma-informed agency, Szafran and the staff work hard to provide balance for the girls and to create age-appropriate experiences that encourage curiosity and learning. Their time at Oglebay does just this.

Why Oglebay Does It

Oglebay Park was created for the people to enjoy. The Oglebay Foundation intends to keep it that way. Janelsins and the foundation are constantly thinking about ways to upgrade and enrich visitor experiences and to do it in a way that encourages family time.

“We want to make sure that kids are in the park, and they’re having these healthy experiences,” he said. “And we know that these are life-changing experiences. I mean, I can’t tell you the number of 80-year-old donors that can tell me the first time they caught a fish in Schenk Lake, the first time that they swung a golf club on the driving range. Those are things that stick with us forever. Not every community has this opportunity to do all those things, and parks [like Oglebay]. So thinking about that, so we want to engage children and families in the park.”

It’s Oglebay and Janelsins’s hope that children who enjoy the park when they’re young will return as adolescents to work in the park during the summer. Many who began as a zoo docent or worked at a concession stand go on to enjoy a career at Oglebay.

“We want people in the parks,” Janelsins said. “That’s why we’re telling this story. Being active, learning together, all of those things, I think, are our goals and outcomes of the program. We operate a great lodge and hospitality facility, and incredible golf courses and all that. And all those are there to provide revenue to help fund the facilities that enable the local kids and families to have these life-changing experiences.”

Janelsins hasn’t found another program like Access to the Parks in the United States, especially in a park so large. The foundation works hard to inform the public that the primary goal is service over economics. Our children are our future. They deserve every opportunity to know joy and find time in nature. These experiences will shape them as they grow and ultimately serve to enrich our community for generations to come.

“At our core, it’s what the parks are about, right?” Janelsins said. “Nothing else matters if we don’t do this.”

Photos provided by Oglebay.

Laura Jackson Roberts is a freelance writer in Wheeling, W.Va. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University and writes about nature and the environment. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Vandaleer, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon and the Erma Bombeck humor site. Laura is the Northern Panhandle representative for West Virginia Writers, a blog editor for Literary Mama Magazine and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She recently finished her first book of humor. Laura lives in Wheeling with her husband and their sons. Visit her online at www.laurajacksonroberts.com.

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