The Great American Campout

Hiking in the woods, stargazing and telling stories around the fire.

What do you remember about camping as a kid?

The memories that many families make together while enjoying nature and camping can last a lifetime.

Your next family adventure could be at the Westerville Parks & Recreation Great American Campout on Friday, September 11 at Heritage Park.

The Stein family participated in this overnight campout last year. It was the first time both seven year-old Alex and four year-old Zach went camping.

“The boys loved it. We already had a tent and thought it was a good way to introduce the kids to camping in a familiar setting,” said Jessica Stein, the boys’ mother.

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That was just what M.J. Smith, Westerville Parks and Recreation Naturalist, had in mind when launching the program.

“When I was a kid, I never got to go camping, and I always wanted to have that experience,” says Smith. “It inspired me to create this opportunity. This is a chance for first-time campers to get out in nature and try sleeping in a tent, all while still being close to home if younger children get uncomfortable.”

The event is a great for experienced campers as well.

“Our lives can get hectic, and even families who love to camp may have a hard time getting away. We supply the food, a space with restrooms and entertainment. Since participants don’t have to travel far or pack as many supplies as a typical camping trip, they can spend quality time with their families without having to worry about every detail,” said Smith.

After setting up tents, the night kicks off with a cookout, and of course, S’mores.

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“Kids get to learn how to safely make a meal over a campfire. There are a lot of children who either get overly excited around fire or scared. We want to avoid little ones swinging flaming marshmallows back and forth, so it is extremely important to go over the basics,” says Smith. “We teach them fire is a tool and just like a tool in your parent’s work box, you don’t use it without permission.”

As dinner wraps up, families can make craft before a night hike begins. Smith says the nature walk is her favorite part of the event.

“We walk the path together without flashlights looking for different kinds of animals and plants. Once everyone’s eyes adjust to the darkness, they realize they can actually see more and become better aware of their surroundings.”

The Stein brothers also enjoyed the night time experience. “It was really neat to see the park after hours; the moon was bright and helped guide our way,” said Stein. “Alex was a little afraid of the dark and held my hand, but he relaxed as we walked around and started using our other senses.”

After the walk, the group is free to play outside and then wind down for bed.

“I distinctly remember kids playing flashlight tag and my husband telling stories inside the tent before going to sleep,” said Stein. “I was surprised. We all slept well. It was quiet and you couldn’t tell we were still in the City.”

She says the whole family can’t wait to do the campout again. “We had a lot of fun. The kids learned new things and we got to unplug and make new memories together.”


And what does young Zach Stein remember best?

“I found my first frog!” he exclaimed.

For more details on the Great American Campout and registration information, visit this link.

Education & Exploration

Bike Safe Westerville

It’s just like riding a bike. But in this case, it actually is riding a bike. With summer-like temperatures, you may have already dusted off your bike and taken it out for a ride around town. And, with more than 29 miles of multi-use trails in Westerville’s Bike and Walkway (B&W) system, there is a lot of ground to explore.

You’re not alone out there on the path. Westerville’s B&W is utilized by thousands of residents and visitors each week. As an official Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists, many path users are not only walkers and runners, but biking families and competitive cyclists alike.

With so many people taking advantage of the recreational path system, it’s important that we safely share this public amenity. That’s why the Westerville Parks and Recreation Department and the Division of Police teamed up to create a mini video series called “Bike Safe Westerville.” These short videos highlight the importance of preventative bike maintenance, general safety practices and rules to follow while riding on the roadway or path.

“Safety on the paths is a top priority for the City, and the development of this video series is targeted on safety awareness and education to our residents and path users,” said Randy Auler, Director of Westerville Parks and Recreation. “As a community, we treasure our recreational path system, and it’s one accessible way to embrace a healthy active lifestyle.”

Before heading out for your next biking adventure, or even a walk with the dog on the pathway, check out the videos below. One film is targeted toward kids, depicting a fun and friendly approach to general bike safety. The second provides an in-depth tutorial on how cyclists should ride on paths, streets and alongside vehicular traffic.

May is also National Bike Month. To celebrate, the City of Westerville is hosting the first-ever Bike Safe Westerville workshop at Everal Barn at Heritage Park, 60 N. Cleveland Avenue, on May 16 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

Attendees will have the opportunity to take what they have learned from the videos and apply it to an interactive bike course at Heritage Park. Children are encouraged to bring their bikes and helmets to participate in hands-on bike stations and a group ride along the path. Local cycling groups are set to teach various skills challenges and conduct a gear and bike inspection. The Westerville Division of Police will be available as well to help register bikes and lead the kids on the group ride. Once the course is completed, the first 200 kids will receive souvenirs. All participants can enter to win a grand prize raffle.

You’re invited to take part in this free event. Visit to learn more about the upcoming workshop and the City’s B&W system. We encourage you to share the Bike Safe Westerville videos with family and friends too.

Bike Safe Westerville!

Bike Safe Westerville Social Media Image 2

Education & Exploration

Discover the Benefits of Outdoor Exploration

“Look what we found, M.J.! What kind of animal is it?”

Josie and Vera Johnson, vibrant seven year-old twins, stumbled upon tracks left in the snow while playing at Heritage Park just last week.

“Those are deer tracks,” explained M.J. Smith, Westerville Parks and Recreation staff naturalist, who specializes in outdoor and wildlife programming. 

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Both Josie and Vera are veteran participants in Parks and Recreation’s Outdoor Explorers class that M.J. teaches every quarter. The duo gets a kick out of testing M.J.’s knowledge.

“It is so cool when we see something. We just ask M.J. and she tells us what it is,” said Josie Johnson. 

Outdoor Explorers is one of three nature courses in a specific “Outdoor” series aimed at children of different ages. Outdoor Discoverers and Outdoor Adventurers, along with Outdoor Explorers, expose kids to quality time in the parks while learning about various animals and plants that inhabit the region.

A short walk down the path reveals the sound of a bird. M.J. and the girls stop to find a woodpecker high in the trees.

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“There are opportunities all around us in nature to learn,” said Smith. “Part of the program is structured, but it is also vital that kids have the opportunity to ask questions, search, and play freely. If we didn’t take the time to pause and use the binoculars to spot the Red Bellied Woodpecker, we may have never seen the beautiful color of that particular bird.” 

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These tidbits of information from the classes are sticking with the students. 

“When children can touch, hear and see the things we are talking about, it really helps them retain information,” said Smith. “There are four classes within each course and by the last day, the kids are pointing out types of flowers or in this instance, Josie was able to identify a poison ivy vine right away and Vera found flower buds from a red maple tree.”

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This dedicated time to experience the natural world provides more benefits than just education. Studies show spending time outdoors can improve social skills, academic performance, stress levels and creativity to name a few.

“We all have access to this wonderful tool that can help not only improve our well-being, but improve the quality of life for our youth. I see it in the kids on a weekly basis, their energy levels and excitement while soaking in green space in undeniable,” said Smith.

Josie and Vera’s Mom, Vanessa, says all these combined benefits are why she continues to enroll her girls in the course.

“Every time Josie and Vera take this class, they get something new out of it,” said Johnson. They are becoming more attuned to nature, making new friends and developing a great relationship with an adult mentor.”

As Josie and Vera stomp in rain puddles giggling, it is apparent that the girls want to engage in this type of activity too. 

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“We love the class! It is fun!” tells Vera.

According to the tree buds M.J. discovered with the Josie and Vera, spring is on its way and so is the next session of outdoors classes in May. For class details and registration information on Outdoor Discoverers, Explorers and Adventurers, visit the Westerville website at this link.

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Education & Exploration

Planting the Seed

Garden Club. You might imagine little old ladies with white gloves drinking tea and talking about herbs. But when it comes to the Westerville Garden Club, that image is far from reality, says club member, Barb Shepard.

“We are an active diverse group. Young and old; men and women. We enjoy planting and gardening, but community education is huge to us,” said Shepard.

Members from the Garden Club regularly teach a free class at the Westerville Community Center.

“It is a great partnership between Westerville Parks and Recreation and the Garden Club. We love being able to share knowledge and encourage others. It doesn’t matter if you live in an apartment or don’t have much of a green thumb, there are plenty of ways you can engage in gardening,” she said.

Many of the classes focus on being environmentally-friendly. Most recently, Michele White and Shepard presented a how-to workshop on making your own health and home products.

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“You may think gardening is a completely green activity, but it is important to be aware of our environmental impacts, pesticides and indoor pollutants,” said Shepard. “We strive to be green in the broadest sense possible.”

As the two chit-chatted while setting up, it is apparent Garden Club blossomed a lasting friendship between them.

“About six years ago, I brought my mom to a Garden Club presentation at the Community Center and Barb was teaching. I thought it would be a good opportunity for my mom to get involved and stay busy, and it turns out I fell in love with the organization,” said White.

That sense of community and friendship is carried throughout the club.

“There is just something about a down-to-earth person that likes to dig in the dirt. We get to serve with people who are so real and passionate,” said Shepard.

This month, a full room of participants came out to learn about toxicity in typical household cleaners and how to make natural products instead.

“I encourage people to consider making homemade cleaners. They are quick and easy to mix together, more affordable and reduce the amount of toxins in your home, body and the environment,” said White.

One recipe they shared is for dishwasher detergent. Directions are below:


Dishes, silverware and glassware come out shiny and clean thanks to this simple three-ingredient powder containing antibacterial grapefruit essential oil.

Prep: 4 min.
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Yield: 32 oz. (Enough for 32 loads)

–Rubber gloves
–Measuring cup
–Mixing bowl
–32-oz. plastic container with lid

–2 cups washing soda (Similar to baking soda, but slightly stronger and can’t be ingested)
–2 cups borax
–25 drops grapefruit essential oil

–Put on gloves.
–Add washing soda, borax and oil to bowl. Stir with your hands to mix and eliminate clumps.
–Transfer powder to plastic container.
–Use 2 Tbsp. detergent per wash.
–You also can add 1 tsp. vinegar, if desired, to the rinse cycle to prevent spots on silverware and glasses.

There are two Westerville Garden Club classes coming up at the Westerville Community Center. Come learn how to introduce mason bees into your garden and create colorful landscaping all season long. To get signed up for these free workshops, click here.

And for more information on the Westeville Garden Club, visit their website at


Education & Exploration

Month of Caring

When we think of Westerville, a vibrant historic city comes to mind. While the City is growing and thriving, it is easy to forget that we still have neighbors in need. The beauty of this time of year is that we are reminded we have the power to help those in need in our community.

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Two Westerville organizations supporting residents in need during the holiday season you probably know well: Westerville Area Resource Ministry (W.A.R.M.) and Caring & Sharing.

“This is our busiest time of the year. The need is greater during the holidays and donations for our 500 client families will help for months to come. Every little bit counts,” said Claire Rockwell, Westerville Area Resource Ministry.

Parks and Recreation’s Month of Caring at the Westerville Community Center runs through December 21 benefiting both W.A.R.M. and Caring & Sharing. Anyone can participate.

“This program is one we love to put on every year. We want it to be easy for our patrons to drop-off donations before they work out or take a class at the Community Center. It is amazing to see how quickly the donation box fills up day after day,” said Lyn Kiger, Westerville Parks and Recreation Supervisor.

But the season of giving doesn’t stop with the Parks and Recreation Department. Every department within the City of Westerville participated in the annual food drive for Westerville Caring & Sharing.

City employees have collected 140,101 lbs of food since 1996. Linda Weir, Westerville Fire Division’s Administrative Secretary, helped start the internal initiative almost two decades ago.


“This food drive has grown tremendously over the past 19 years. We have a friendly competition among the departments to see who can collect the most donations. Each year, our city employees continue to step up for a good cause,” said Linda Weir.

This year was no different. Three city trucks pulled up to Caring & Sharing’s donation site on Thursday, December 11 to drop off all kinds of grocery staples and toys for the kids.


“This is my favorite part of the year, you can see the difference you are going to make in Westerville, in the lives of local families,” said Linda.

Westerville Caring & Sharing is an all-volunteer organization and uses a temporary site during the holidays to distribute to more than 300 families.

“We start with this huge empty building. The space is graciously donated for us to use and within a few days it is packed with toys, food, and volunteers. We wouldn’t be able to have this impact without the volunteers,” said Westerville Caring & Sharing volunteer Mary Pugh.


Because it is mainly Westerville residents helping others in Westerville, the organization keeps all the families confidential.

“People are shy to ask for help, and it is important for them to keep their dignity. We go to great lengths to show families that they can come to us if they need it and they have no reason to feel embarrassed,” said Mary.

As Westerville Caring & Sharing helpers prepared for the big distribution day on December 15, volunteers from the Westerville Service Department unloaded 10,274 lbs of donations with smiles, jokes and a great attitude.


Many of the departments go above and beyond the citywide food drive, hosting other holiday fundraisers in the community to give back. For more ways to donate or details on our Month of Caring, visit the City website at

Education & Exploration

Making a Difference

Sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty for a good cause. That’s just what the Mihaly family did for this year’s Make a Difference Day in Westerville.

Glenda Mihaly and her two sons, Joe and Anthony, joined a group of volunteers at Boyer Nature Preserve for some good old-fashioned labor on Saturday, October 25 for the day dedicated to national service.

This annual Westerville event is a collaborative effort between the City of Westerville, Sierra Club of Central Ohio, MAD Scientist & Associates and Friends of Alum Creek and Tributaries (FACT) all with one goal in mind: clean up Boyer Nature Preserve and clear the wetlands of invasive plant species.

As the sun began to break through the trees that morning, volunteers from all over the area began to remove Honeysuckle and Multiflora Rose at the park.

“It is hard work, but it is good to be out here with the kids,” said Glenda.

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Glenda’s son, Joe, is a fifth grader at Robert Frost. Although he needed to earn some community service hours, the family was there for more than just school credit.

“We chose this service project because of the park. We love Westerville parks and bike paths. When we come to Boyer to take a walk it only benefits us, but helping give back to the park will further benefit others,” she said.

Clearing out the invasive plant species has a bigger impact than you may initially think. For example, honeysuckle is not a native plant and upsets the ecosystem of the nature preserve. It is the first plant to develop its leaves and the last to lose them, meaning it creates shade that keeps other plants from growing.

“It really has a snowball effect. When one non-native plant comes into an area like Boyer, it can throw off the entire plant balance. This clean-up is a process that will take years, but every bit counts. Every person out here is helping restore this park to its natural state for generations to come,” said Mark Dilley, Founder of MAD Scientist & Associates.

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It wasn’t all about removing plants from the park either. The group also brought in new life, strategically planting native trees and bushes. And Anthony Mihaly was one of the first to plant a tree.

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Boyer Nature Preserve is different from many other parks in the area, holding special meaning for Dilley.

“I’ve done a lot of work out here. Boyer is a unique site with so much to explore. You don’t find many wetlands in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. The central pond has a lot of interesting wetland plants and wildlife species. Most people don’t have access to such a diverse and healthy natural habitat in their backyard,” he said.

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Because of it’s unique ecosystem, volunteering at Boyer is also a fun learning experience for the younger helpers.

“It is always a lot of fun to see the kids out there, working hard, getting excited about nature and being exposed to new things,” said Mark.

That sentiment rang true as the Mihaly kids zipped around gathering brush, laughing and talking about what they learned. And the more adults and kids alike develop a sense of connection to the natural world, the better the park system will be.

“This is their park too. We have such wonderful volunteers in the City and we are thankful for all they do. The more people in the community have their hands in helping at Boyer, the more attachment they will feel to the site and in turn, the park will become further valued, utilized and loved,” said Westerville Parks and Facilities Superintendent Doug Vineyard.

If you are looking for an opportunity to come out and volunteer at the one of the City’s parks, call (614) 901-6592 for more information.

Education & Exploration

It’s Prime Time for a Nature Walk

Now that October is here, it finally smells, looks and feels like Fall. As the leaves are turning, it is a great time to get outside and enjoy autumn’s bright colors. A nature walk is the perfect way to relax, breathe some fresh air and a spend a little quality time by yourself or with family.

Westerville Parks and Recreation Naturalist, MJ, recently visited Metzger Park for an adventure in the woods. She has a few tips to make the best of your next nature walk.

1. Safety first. Watch out for poison ivy. A couple sayings to remember: “If it’s hairy, it’s scary,” or “Leaves of three, let it be.” Poison ivy can turn a very pretty color, so give the leaves a double take before picking them up. Here is an example of a brown poison ivy vine.


2. Don’t pick foliage from trees or bushes; take only what has fallen to the ground. This helps prevent damage to the trees before winter and keeps you from picking something rare that is needed for a plant to grow the following year. Be sure to leave behind enough snacks for animals to eat before hibernation. Consider taking just a leaf, acorn or a nice rock as a souvenir. Or, snap a picture instead. Keep in mind it is illegal to keep a feather from a migratory bird, even if it is found on the ground. Additionally, nature preserves like Boyer Nature Preserve are protected areas, meaning you can’t take any flora from the site.


3. Search for as many different leaves as you can. You can compare and contrast the color, shapes and texture. Test your tree knowledge and try to identify the tree. Can you identify any of the vegetation below?


In honor of our state tree, MJ found a Buckeye! But beware, our beloved Buckeye nuts are poisonous and not safe to consume.



4. Keep your eyes peeled for leaf buds. Trees are already preparing for the Spring. This American Beech has buds for next season.


5. Seeds are plentiful this time of year. Smell them, touch them and take note of how they are different. A few you may find in Westerville are acorns, pine cones, multiflora rose, hickory nuts, spicebush, berries and jewelweed. Jewelweed seeds (A.K.A. spotted touch-me-nots) are actually fine to touch and spring open when you pinch them.



6. Make a game out of looking for different animals. Try to spot deer, chipmunks, squirrels, birds and other creatures. This squirrel just got done playing with a friend at Metzger.


7. Channel your inner child. Stomping on big piles of leaves can be fun and a great stress-reliever. Studies show spending time outdoors has numerous health benefits, so soak up the experience knowing you are doing something good for your mind and body.


8. Try to get out before Halloween. Depending on how the month shapes up, some leaves should still be changing and (fingers crossed) the temperature should be mild. If the forecast is slated to be rainy and cold, aim to get a nature walk in before mid-October because the leaves are more likely to be brown and fall sooner.

Your experience with nature doesn’t have to stop at the park either. You can create a sensory bowl filled with the items you found outside for the kids. Another option is to turn the leaves into an art project by decorating them (instructions here). By pressing leaves in a book or sealing them with wax paper, you can preserve them for years to come.

 We’d love to see pictures of your October nature walk. Share images with us on Twitter at @westervillepark using #acitywithinapark. Enjoy your hike!


Education & Exploration