Norte + Schools = Perfect Match
Norte began with a simple problem — getting kids to school.
“What I saw was a river of cars surrounding the neighborhood school my son attended,” said Norte founder and Executive Director Ty Schmidt. “I was just surprised and bummed out that a handful of kids were walking to school, and even fewer were biking. So we decided to do something about it.”
For Ty and his wife, Johanna, doing something about it meant organizing kids and parents into “bike trains” to and from school every day. At the time, the Schmidts focused on their small, grassroots effort; they had no idea there was a pool of federal funding meant to help kids like theirs walk and bike to school safely.
Ty first heard about the Safe Routes to School program from Laura Otwell in 2014. Shortly after that, she helped Ty apply for a $1,000 grant for Traverse Heights Elementary School. That first grant application was successful; Norte was off and running.
“We had never written any grants, and I didn’t know grant writing,” admits Ty. “But then [the next year] we got $25,000 for five TCAPS schools.”
Since then, new Safe Routes to School programs have helped create new program opportunities every year, including a $2.1 million in walking and biking infrastructure being constructed this year in Traverse City.
“It’s seed money. We’ve been going to that pot a long time, and it’s a way to see if things stick. That’s the model we used for Elk Rapids, Northport, Suttons Bay, and now Kalkaska beginning this coming school year,” said Ty.
Max Fulkerson is with the Michigan Fitness Foundation. He helps administer the Safe Routes to School program in Michigan. “Safe Routes to School is a program and a movement,” said Fulkerson. “The idea behind it is to get more kids to walk and bike to school.”
Fulkerson explained the money comes through the Federal Highway Administration. The program targets students from kindergarten through 8th grade. It provides infrastructure improvements along routes to school, like sidewalks and roads, but they also include non-infrastructure programming that Fulkerson calls “people programs.”
Those programs include the kinds of things that Norte does well — teaching kids how to ride bikes, providing bikes to kids who need them, and organizing non-motorized trips to school. Fulkerson said the list of benefits to walking and biking to school is long and includes environmental quality, traffic reduction, and exercise for kids.
“Our lives have become more based on technology,” said Fulkerson. “And so the opportunity to get away from that and to go for a walk or a bike ride is really good for bodies and minds.”
Ty Schmidt agrees that walking and biking to school get kids ready to learn. “They get the wiggles out, and they just turn on,” he said. “Humans are designed to move.”
Ty recognizes the Safe Routes to School program is still Norte‘s “bread and butter” and plans to use the grants to expand into new communities. “Ultimately, we want to help communities to apply for this funding. Because now we’re good at writing grants.”
The 2021 school year is fast approaching. To successfully roll out our in-school and after-school programs, Norte needs dedicated people to sign up as coaches, volunteers, and walk and roll ambassadors at their children’s schools. Sign up through elgruponorte.org or swing by the Clubhouse to discuss how we can help you help kids stay active-for-life.
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