Now that midterm elections have come and gone, there is one thing we can all agree on regardless what our beliefs: in order to make change, we must each play our part to be that change. Often in the Hike it Baby community, the question is asked what “adventurous” means, and the answer is different for all of us. For many in the Hike it Baby community, our adventures are defined by the little people we take on trail with us. But one Hike it Baby mom took it a step further and made protecting the outdoors her personal adventure. Annie Fortunato, Pittsfield Township Park Commissioner in Pittsfield Township, MI, shares her story of how she got involved with her local community in an effort to help preserve the local lands for all families to enjoy now and in the future.

One mom's journey to protect the lands she loved by Annie Fortunato for Hike it Baby

Nature has always played an important part in my life. I grew up in a rural part of Southeast Michigan and have always had a strong connection with the outdoors. I treasure the memories of climbing trees, running through cornfields and catching crayfish in the creek. This foundation motivated me to earn a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and political science. My initial plan was to go to law school to become an environmental lawyer and while I was making those plans, the universe laughed. After I graduated, I traveled a little and then found myself in a job that had absolutely nothing to do with my degree. Sound familiar?

Shortly after, I got married and had my first son, Neko, but had no other direction in my life. I went to work, came home and took care of him. I didn’t really have any friends and felt out of place in my own life. Sure, I was a mom, but that’s all I felt like I was. In October 2014, when Neko was 3, my cousin, who was living in Anchorage, Alaska, told me about Hike it Baby. I looked it up and found out there wasn’t a branch in Ann Arbor where I lived. The “mom groups” that I had tried in the past had just not been our speed. Neko was a wild child with a mind of his own and library groups were always a disaster, but this sounded exactly like what he needed. The rest is history.

I started volunteering with the National Team in December 2014 and my social network exploded with Hike it Baby moms and dads, both locally and around the United States. My little guy made friends and I finally found my place in the world. For once, since becoming a mother, I felt like I had found my calling. Spreading my love for the outdoors with families around the world and in my own community made me feel fulfilled as an individual. I finally felt like more than “just a mom.”

Earlier this year, Neko and I were driving a different route home from school, which happened to pass the trailhead of Pittsfield Preserve, the spot of one of our very first recurring hikes back in 2014. The preserve was where I saw babies take their first steps and watched friendships grow. Neko and I were horrified at the amount of trees that littered the side of the road as the county made room to pave the road that ran through the preserve. The trailhead was gone and, instead there were port-a-potties and construction vehicles. Neko, who was 6 at the time, had a million questions. “Why are they cutting down the all the trees, mom? Why would they do that? Why would they kill the animals’ homes like that?” His love and concern was clear and I knew I had to do something.

I reached out to the community that I had a hand in building. Hike it Baby families were just as shocked as I was. I attended a township park commission meeting and voiced the concerns that we had. Turns out, even more plans for development of the preserve were in the works. Hike it Baby Ann Arbor had grown to over 2,000 families at that point and, as one of the leaders of the group, I felt like it was important for me to represent them and their interests. Not to mention, being a role model for my own child. I always told Neko to stand up for what he believed in. This was my chance to practice what I preach.

One mom's journey to protect the lands she loved by Annie Fortunato for Hike it Baby

As many things in life, the things you are meant to do start falling into place. I reached out to the township clerk and she planted the seed for me to run for one of the open seats as a Park Commissioner. Hike it Baby families began to catch wind and the support poured in. Families offered to collect signatures for me to get on the ballot, a Hike it Baby mama donated photography services for headshots, families who couldn’t vote in my district posted on the their social media, and Hike it Baby members even donated to my campaign! The support left me speechless. I was so grateful to have a community of people who believed in me.

Had I not found Hike it Baby, I may have never found my voice, my son may not have created the attachment to the parks and green spaces in our area, and I likely would not have honed my skills as a community organizer. I will be forever indebted to how Hike it Baby has changed my life and has shaped how I see my role in my community. Hike it Baby is not just about me and my children, but it gives thousands of people a voice for the next generation. As a Branch Ambassador, I have learned how to be a positive and influential leader and showed me how I truly am changing the world, one hike at a time.

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Photos by Amy Diebold.

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