As a determined group of sixth-graders ran and sweated around Centennial Lake in Ellicott City, raising money for Howard County's most heavily used park, they also were learning a lesson in the economics of recreation.
The 186 children from Dunloggin Middle School trudging around the lake in Centennial Park took part in the annual March for Parks this month to cap off their study of the national park system. They watched videos about federal funding for parks, and park rangers went to the school to talk about why parks are important and the need to support them.
They youngsters also learned that parks do not receive enough public funding. They were told how, in Howard County, the budget is enough to cover only the salaries of park employees, leaving little for park improvements. So they took to the trails to raise money for Centennial Park. All of the funds will go directly to beautification and conservation efforts.
"It is really cool we can support the park," said Alexis Spaid, 11, of Ellicott City. "My mom runs here and I am here all the time, so it was nice to do something good."
While Centennial is not the largest of Howard County's five parks - Rockburn Branch holds that honor with 401 acres - it is by far the most popular and has the most amenities.
Centennial Park offers its estimated million annual visitors 325 acres of ball fields, pavilions, jogging/hiking/biking trails and its crowning jewel: a 54 acre-lake stocked with fish where people can spend the day paddle boating, kayaking or fishing.
"The lake is a big draw and certainly the pathways around the lake," said Jennie DeArmey, supervisor of park operations. "Walking, hiking and biking are big, big draws to Centennial."
It is not unusual to see joggers and dog walkers circling the 2 1/2 -mile loop around Centennial Lake every day of the year and to see families with children picnicking, flying kites or just enjoying peace and quiet in the open space.
The park also is home to wildlife, and enthusiasts enjoy bird- and frog-watching, as well as seeing turtles, beavers, rabbits and red foxes that have made their homes in the wildlife area.
This is the ninth year that Dunloggin pupils have made the march, according to Claire Meitl, a sixth-grade teacher at Dunloggin and one of the organizers of the march. The pupils have raised more than $15,000 overall. Last year, they raised $4,333.19. Money from this year's effort is still being collected.
Park officials have used the money to plant a windbreak, for bluebird feeders and for the county frog-monitoring program. Plans for the money raised this year include plantings and hiring a consultant to advise park staff on how to better maintain trails.
"We will use it for things that would not normally come out of the operating budget," DeArmey said.
The March for the Parks is part of a national event run by the National Park Service that is usually held around Earth Day to help park systems meet demands. Because of scheduling problems, the Dunloggin group marched May 2. All of the money raised goes directly to the particular park where the march was held.
While many other groups use the park for their fund-raisers, March for Parks is the only event that raises money specifically for Centennial Park. Children collected funds through pledges from their friends and family, and sometimes badgered a beleaguered walker they passed on the way.
"Most of the pledges come in after the walk because for some reason parents want to see their kids go through with it," Meitl said. "Last year, we only had a few hundred dollars before the walk and ended up with over $4,000."