In response to the prolonged isolation inflicted on residents during the pandemic, Marin County officials are using a $100,000 grant fund to support mental health through outdoor recreation.
The county’s Breathe/Respira community grant program, which was established in 2014 to make park access more equitable, is making awards of up to $8,000 available to community organizations to bring their programs into county parks.
The program was originally designed to overcome such obstacles as the cost of accessible transportation. While that’s still the case, Max Korten, the county parks director, said, “we know that this year has been really challenging.”
“The shutdown left everyone feeling isolated and people’s mental health suffered,” Korten said. “We figured that the parks are a place where people can get out and connect in a safe open space.”
The parks department teamed with Dr. Jei Africa, the director of Marin County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, to identify residents who could benefit from this support.
“Studies and anecdotal information indicate children to seniors, especially from communities of color or those who have been playing emergency response roles, are struggling with increased stress, depression and substance use,” Africa said. “Parks and outdoor activity have been shown to have a positive impact on mental health. Through this partnership, we can provide tools and resources that complement positive benefits of going outdoors and help with recovery from the pandemic as well as build resilience in preparation for future disasters.”
Many of the grantees in 2020 had to delay their programs or pivot to online programs due to the pandemic.
Gregory Katzan, director of the Marin City Community Services Corp. Empowerment Club, a mental health recovery group, said it slowly has been able to organize trips to parks. Visit sites so far include Paradise Park, McNears Beach and Stafford Lake.
“At this time, it’s so much more vital than we could have ever imagined,” Katzan said.
For many club members, the park excursions have been their first foray back to social life since the COVID-19 crisis struck last year, he said.
“It’s really important to get people out of their homes and back into the habit of in-person socializing,” he said. “Getting outdoors with friends is mentally healing, relaxing, and to do so in these beautiful settings is healing in every sense of the word.”
Age-Friendly Sausalito has also received a 2020 grant. The group plans to use the funding to host a senior fair at a park to showcase amenities such as walking trails that could be appealing to its members, said Sybil Boutilier, chair of the group.
Boutilier said the funding is also being used to subsidize tai chi classes that focus on fall prevention and arthritis recovery for older adults. Group picnics to the park are also in the works.
So far, Boutilier has arranged a docent-led trip to Ring Mountain, where members learned about the grasses and flowers in the park.
“People were just thrilled,” she said. “Being in nature where you are just allowed to relax in a new way, it expands your view and sense of being a person in the world.”
The grant fund is supported by Measure A, the parks tax approved in 2012. Applications are due by June 17. More information is at bit.ly/3c3CwWz.