A grant program run by the Department of Natural Resources that has connected thousands of young Minnesotans to the outdoors through dozens of projects has money for another round of big ideas.
The No Child Left Inside (NCLI) grant program was created by 2019 legislation which endowed the program with $1.2 million. DNR managers quickly received hundreds of applications for the first phase of grants – mini-grants of up to $5,000. Nearly $234,000 has been awarded to nearly 60 projects across the state, from outdoor learning programs at Bertha-Hewitt Public Schools to teaching maple syrup in Milaca, to the Minnesota Youth Ski League silver in Minneapolis. Two more rounds of grants followed. Most recently, phase three saw $200,000 awarded to around 50 projects last December.
Now the DNR has $250,000 to award in phase four and money for awards through 2023 after the Legislature last year allocated an additional $900,000 to continue the NCLI program. The deadline for phase four applicants is March 10. Winners will be notified in May.
Mini-grants were followed in phase two with more substantial funding. Some projects have received over $40,000 in phase two. The rotating approach is designed to cope with intense interest and to reach as many young people as possible, said Jeff Ledermann, a DNR education and skills supervisor who manages the grant program.
“We try to find the right balance,” Ledermann said.
The DNR has tightened eligibility criteria from phase three to focus money on children who may miss out on away opportunities. The agency tracks data from the Department of Education on free and discounted school meals in Minnesota communities. Applicants for grants from school districts, environmental learning centers, and other organizations must come from a population of which at least 40% are eligible for the grant.
There are other guidelines for grant applicants. They must specify the expectations of their projects and declare their achievements themselves to the MRN. Ledermann said the agency balances its expectations based on the size of the grant. He said the first phase had around 12,000 participants among its more than 50 projects, although implementation was affected by COVID-19. The pandemic, however, hasn’t dampened the fervor for the grants. Over 100 applications were received for the largest phase two grants. Fisheries-related projects in Ham Lake and West St. Paul, for example, each received more than $45,000.
“It was awesome”
Driven by persistent and interested students, Jed Helwig worked to establish a fishing club at North High School in North St. Paul, where he serves as director of activities. He applied for and won a $6,900 NCLI Phase Two grant and is now also the club’s advisor.
Helwig quickly purchased rods, reels and related gear to get the club afloat. He also spent money booking pontoon boats to take club members to the fish. Their first outing last year was on White Bear Lake, and regular multi-hour Saturday morning outings followed through the end of the school year.
What started with the use of a school van (and some free lunches) turned into a need for two vehicles to accommodate the growing North Anglers Club. Now it has more than 20 members and has a reach beyond the school, Helwig said. Family members began showing up with their own boats on other outings to places like Forest and Bald Eagle lakes.
Helwig said inclusivity has always been a goal.
“What’s great is that we have first graders involved with seniors,” he said.
“I give them the platform to teach each other,” Helwig said. “He’s evolved. He’s been great.”
Now he has graduates who want to come back to take the anglers and watch the club grow.
Nelson Marine at White Bear Lake provided the club with fishing shirts, while Helwig stocked up on equipment and tournament prizes at Cabela’s in Woodbury for the ensuing friendly competitions.
“You know the fishing community,” he said. “You help each other.”
Chisago County was one of the first grant recipients, in the first phase. He partnered with the former St. Croix River Association and received $3,500 for the Invasive Species Studies Program. The county and the nonprofit, which has since changed its name to the Wild Rivers Conservancy, achieved their goal of educating 500 school children about the threat of invasive species to the St. Croix National Scenic River and its watershed. — despite the pandemic forcing a change in teaching approaching.
Plans for boat trips on the Holy Cross to supplement classroom presentations at five county schools were scuttled, but Wild Rivers adapted by creating Into the Weeds, a series of four field videos, to fill vacuum and complete its Rivers Are Alive program. . The videos include field and water investigations on how to find and identify invasive species, including aquatic invasive species like Asian carp, rusty crayfish and curly-leaved pondweed.
The videos helped Chisago County when it needed to adapt its own Water Festival, a longtime annual event for fifth-graders that relies on educational stations and hands-on activities on the value of water. Sainte-Croix watershed. The festival had to go virtual and was moved from fall to May 2021, said Susanna Wilson Witkowski, the county water resources officer who worked with Wild Rivers to secure an NCLI grant in 2019.
Wilson Witkowski said the invasive species program will have a lasting impact as the county and conservation continue to work together to connect youth to the watershed and how they can engage it with a new mindset.
“We’ve always brought a sense of nature and a connection to natural resources,” said Katie Sickmann, invasive species coordinator for the Wild Rivers Conservancy.