Atiya Wells went on her first hike when she was 22. Her boyfriend (now husband) took her to a park near Frederick, Maryland. The Newark, New Jersey native was skeptical. But she felt so revitalized afterwards that she and her husband started going every weekend. It was a tradition they kept up after they had children, though hiking with children was decidedly more complicated.
“Putting my kids in car seats, and they’re back there fighting; packing extra clothes and snacks,” Wells recalls. “It was just too much. I just wanted a place we could walk to where we could keep them engaged in nature.”
She started to think of ways that her kids could more easily interact with nature. She did some research about low-cost, convenient outdoor experiences for families, which led her to the Free Forest School, a national organization focused on finding free ways for young children and their parents and caregivers to explore nature. She founded a Baltimore chapter. Other families participating in the weekly outings began turning to Wells as though she was a nature expert, so she decided she needed to become one: She signed up for a self-paced online program run by the Wilderness Awareness School.
As part of her course work to become a naturalist, Wells needed to find a spot where she could just sit and observe nature regularly. But with small kids, a house, and a nursing job, she needed somewhere near her house. She didn’t know of any parks within walking distance of her home in the Frankford neighborhood in Northeast Baltimore, so she Googled it.
Wells went looking for the park that Google insisted was nearby and was surprised to find herself suddenly in the woods, just blocks from her home. Barbara and Parkwood Park was not a park in the traditional sense. There were no ball fields, tot lots, or even walking trails, just seven acres of natural forest in the middle of the neighborhood. She followed a deer trail into the woods, and it led her to a pond on a three-acre vacant lot. The park and the vacant lot would become the Baltimore Living in Sustainable Simplicity (BLISS) Meadows project.
Through BLISS Meadows and Backyard Basecamp (the nonprofit organization Wells runs to inspire and empower Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color to explore nature), Wells hopes to give her community a space to explore nature right in their own backyard. Her primary goal is to connect the 5,000 people who live within a 10-minute walk to the site with nature. She also wants BLISS Meadows to be a resource for all Northeast Baltimore and is building partnerships with the neighborhood schools to become a resource for students and teachers to explore nature in their own community.
“There is a lack of community greenspace in Black and Brown communities,” says Wells. “I do this work because it’s necessary, because it’s what I want for my community.”
Since getting permission to lease the lot in April of 2019, Wells has been busy building her vision of what BLISS Meadows can be. She began building a farm, which now has planting beds, a chicken coop, three friendly goats, and one bunny. Wells also acquired the vacant house next door and is raising funds to transform that space into a LEED-certified classroom space for children and the community.
BLISS Meadows has already become a refuge for the community, with neighbors stopping by to explore nature or drink their morning coffee by the pond. During the summer, Wells partnered with local farms to do a free produce giveaway every Thursday for families in need. With so many parents and children stuck at home because of COVID-19, Wells set up three Wi-Fi hotspots so families can get out of their houses for a little while but still get their work done.
Once fully operational, BLISS Meadows will offer educational and community programming from naturalist courses and environmental education to farm-to-table cooking and yoga. The OSI Community Fellowship will let Wells focus more of her time on BLISS Meadows and build a strong, sustainable foundation for the organization.