Students and Mentors Team Up to Beautify Belle Isle

University Prep Science & Math High School joined tourism and hospitality professionals in a collaborative effort to enhance Detroit's Belle Isle. Find out how they connected and what they learned in the process.

On an extra warm Monday in mid-May, 77 11th graders from University Prep Science & Math High School gathered on Detroit’s Belle Isle for a day of learning, connection and hard work.

Paired with 110 mentors from about 35 Michigan’s tourism and hospitality industry organizations, teams scraped and painted pavilions and restrooms, removed weeds and lay mulch, cut down invasive plants from the water’s edge and performed other tasks to maintain and enhance Belle Isle’s natural beauty.

Skylar Burden and Leah Taylor, both 16, worked alongside Sarah Gorcyca, senior account executive with MMGY, the advertising agency for Pure Michigan. They removed chipped paint along the edges of metal poles in a pavilion and talked about their volunteer expectations. 

Both students said they were happy they weren’t picking up trash — and that, overall, they saw the value in beautifying Belle Isle.

Connecting students and tourism professionals

The one-day event was coordinated by Michigan Cares for Tourism, a nonprofit founded by Patty Janes, a professor of hospitality and tourism marketing and research at Grand Valley State University. As a charter public high school authorized by Grand Valley State University, UPrep Science & Math was a key choice for this event.

During this effort, as well as other projects Michigan Cares for Tourism sponsors each year, the goals include engaging in meaningful volunteer work at a historic natural or cultural attraction that has a need, says Janes. In this case, students were placed on teams and paired with industry professionals.

“We intentionally create groups across disciplines and geography to engage with the tourism community to meet new people, learn new things and become stronger,” she explains. Including students in these events provides exposure to Michigan’s tourism industry, to GVSU’s school of Hospitality and Tourism Management and to volunteering.

Students volunteering at Belle Isle
Photo Credit: Lauren Jeziorski for GVSU CSO

As the day unfolds, students and industry leaders work together toward a shared goal in a setting where conversations can evolve naturally.

Recognizing Detroit as a place to live and work — and to visit

Working in a team to remove metal fencing around young trees, Joshua Williams, an event coordinator at Westin Book Cadillac, shared experiences with Deshawn Marks, a 17-year-old student with plans to study kinesiology and run his own physical therapy business.

Williams moved back to Detroit from Florida and spoke about how tourism contributes to the city’s revitalization. “The past events that the city has hosted put the city and the state on display in a good light,” he says.

Deshawn Marks at Belle Isle Clean Up Day
Photo Credit: Lauren Jeziorski for GVSU CSO

Deshawn agrees. “With the Lions and all the other things that are happening, that’s bringing more people here from outside Michigan to come to Detroit and actually find out what it’s about,” he says.

Deshawn adds that he’s happy to have joined UPrep Science & Math this school year after attending a traditional public school. He enjoys the breadth and depth of classes at the school. “Coming here made a big difference,” he says. “And I enjoyed the opportunity to come out and work in the environment.”

Lessons in teamwork, plans and goals

Close to the edge of the Detroit River, Carmen Skinner, director of human resources at Westin Book Cadillac, says the team of students she worked with were achieving their goal of clearing some well-established invasive bushes.

“They are rocking and rolling,” she says. “They cut down that whole tree. Just amazing.” She hoped the kids would walk away with a feeling that they can accomplish anything through teamwork. “We’re all working toward one mission to clear the path for the beautiful scenery.”

Student Sam Williams-Bey, who comes to Belle Isle occasionally, says the next time he visits, he’ll know that he helped create an unobstructed view of the water. He worked alongside fellow student Angel Griffith, who was specifically seeking connection with industry professionals in STEM fields because she has her future sights set on architecture and engineering.

Students cleaning Belle Isle
Photo Credit: Lauren Jeziorski for GVSU CSO

“I like using my hands to do stuff and solve problems. When I hear architecture, I think of building and making designs and ideas for how to build things,” she says, adding that she selected UPrep Science & Math over University Prep Art & Design and University Prep Academy because of the school’s engineering pathways.

In the next group over, Ernie McCutcheon, an engineer at General Motors, took time to share his thoughts about the day’s work. “I want the kids to know they can dream big, that they can accomplish anything. I believe that,” he says. He sees a volunteer setting as a perfect place to strike up a conversation about plans and goals.

He also says the students remind him of himself at their age. “I went to Renaissance High School, one of the first graduating classes, in 1982,” he says. He received a scholarship to Michigan Tech to study engineering and returned to Detroit to work at GM. Focused on this goal, McCutcheon says he learned through GM-sponsored programs starting in middle school.

He says a broadly available STEM focus will help these students because the value is recognized by colleges and future employers — and it can reach many more students than the limited-capacity programs he took part in as a student.

Embedded in community, charter schools expose students to ‘new and different’

UPrep Science & Math teacher Cooper Wojcicki contrasts the day’s hands-on work with the project-based learning format at school. “Projects like this are a little bit different from school because you immediately get to see the results of the work you are putting in,” he says.

Partnerships with GVSU and Michigan Department of Natural Resources paved the way for the event, which Wojcicki says is positive for students because they spend leisure time on Belle Isle and now have an appreciation for what it takes to maintain the environment.

The event was also a good fit for UPrep Science & Math because volunteering is appropriate for a charter school embedded in the community, compared to the “top down” classroom learning experiences common in traditional public schools.

“That connection with GVSU and partnership with the DNR at the school level means we get to do things like this,” he says.

Students cleaning up Belle Isle
Photo Credit: Lauren Jeziorski for GVSU CSO

Even though high school students may not immediately recognize the value of working shoulder to shoulder with potential mentors, everyone comes away with something positive, says Janes.

“Everyone leaves learning things you didn’t know you learned. How to engage volunteers, how to deliver an event. Also, the resilience in humans to work in 90-degree heat with commitment and dedication and communication,” she says.

She adds that she’s grateful to the school and to the students in helping Michigan Cares for Tourism learn how to facilitate multi-generation engagement. “For the kids, those skills will transcend to work environments.”

Seventeen-year-old Kollin Jones gave the morning a solid four out of five. As a high school student who also creates content for YouTube and looks forward to future work in coding and game creation, he didn’t mind putting sweat equity into improving Belle Isle.

“It’s something new and different,” he says.

UPrep Science & Math High School is a Detroit charter school authorized by Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office. Learn more at gvsu.edu/cso.

Find more content like this at Metro Parent’s Guide to Michigan Charter Schools.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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