My buddy Jack and this once-in-a-century opportunity


I met Jack on March 1st, 2019. He was a fifth-grader at Eastern Elementary. It was after-school, on a sunny Friday afternoon, and I was at his school to interview him, his brother Max and friend Tripp about their quest to bike to school every day of the 2018-19 school year. I liked Jack from the get-go. Smart, funny, and thoughtful. We’ve been buddies ever since.

Jack is the kind of kid that wants to be outside. He wants to move, to explore, to play. If you’re going to find Jack, look for him at the skatepark, cruising his neighborhood with friends, or ripping along a mountain bike trail. He’s an active kid.

Jack is a Norte poster child. What we hold up as an indicator species of a healthy, vibrant Traverse City. He’s independent, confident, with a spirit of adventure. He’s also fortunate to live in a neighborhood where his parents have the confidence he will be safe. They don’t need to hover. He’s good.

Traverse City is doing many things right related to health, access, and social connections. We’re expanding sidewalks, improving crosswalks, building bike lanes, slowing cars, and investing in parks. We should be proud. However, the pandemic has me wondering if we can do better. I wonder if this is a once-in-a-century opportunity to double or triple down on these efforts.

I wonder how we can think and act differently so that more of our children can grow up with the opportunities that Jack enjoys. How do we become a community that puts health at the forefront of our policies, infrastructure, education, and systems? A community whereby every kid is given critical nudges at critical right times so that they develop healthy habits for life.

Instead of treating the symptoms of sedentary, isolated lifestyles, I wonder if we are ready to address the root causes of our traditionally poor health outcomes. Are we prepared to fundamentally alter the odds in favor of more off-the-couch, off-the-screen young people like Jack?

This won’t be as simple as cheerleading everyone to get outside and get moving. We must design neighborhoods around our kids’ needs — their body, heart, and mind — so that more of them (all of them) are free to play outside and roam their neighborhood safely like Jack.

Fueled by stubborn optimism, we’re working on this at Norte. And just like Jack and his crew were successful at biking to school every day last year, we’re all in to be successful in our quest. That’s why Norte is part of a coalition working to better connect many of Traverse City’s schools including Jack’s current school, East Middle School, with a sense of urgency.

The pandemic has many of us anxious about the future. I share that anxiety, but I also can’t help see a once-in-a-century opportunity for more of us (all of us) to commit to doing better. To do what we can, where we are, and together build a bright, beautiful future filled with thousands and thousands of happy, healthy, ready-to-learn kids.

Just like my buddy Jack.

This story originally appeared in the Traverse City Record-Eagle.