Earlier this summer, Erin Quinley was leading a small group from Anna’s House into the woods behind the facility when two boys lost interest, wandered away and began throwing sticks into a nearby stream. Their mother was disappointed that they wouldn’t participate in the group’s activities, but Quinley, the director of partnerships with Nature Worx, saw an opportunity.

She told the participants about an exercise she had done in other settings. She would ask each person to pick up a leaf, imbue it with their worries or concerns and set it down on the water to drift away. But with this group, she suggested a different approach.

“You guys have big problems,” she said, turning to the two boys. Instead of letting those worries drift away on a leaf, “let’s huck them into a stream!”

The participants began following the boys’ lead, throwing sticks and rocks into the water, and “we got to reinforce that the kids are just right, where they are,” Quinley said.

This experience was part of one of at least a dozen sessions that Nature Worx will lead at Anna’s House in 2021. The nonprofit organization launched in 2017 works to help participants connect to the natural world in ways that support their mental, physical and spiritual health.

Deep history, new partnership

The founder of Nature Worx, Philip Hosmer, had volunteered at Anna’s House for more than a decade before the idea of partnering with his nonprofit arose. He had served as a mentor to children – part of “Anna’s Guys” who took kids on recreational field trips – as a fundraiser and as the master of ceremonies for the annual donor breakfast. With an appreciation for the work of the program, which provides an array of services to people experiencing homelessness in Harford County, he offered to bring Nature Worx to Anna’s House residents.

Nature Worx applied for and secured a grant from the Greater Bel Air Community Foundation to support the partnership and started providing every-other-week sessions at the facility in March.

Adapting the program

Anna’s House seemed an easy fit for Nature Worx, in part because Harford County’s Ma and Pa Trail runs behind the residences, offering a path that families can use, even with strollers. But Nature Worx, which had not worked with young children, found that many families did not want to trek down the hill to the trail. Quinley said they began looking for ways to transition the program into the front yard of Anna’s House.

“They have some really nice picnic tables, raised bed gardens – plenty for Nature Worx to work with,” Quinley said.

Since then, Nature Worx has aimed to make programming more physically accessible and friendly to children. They’ve excavated beauty from ordinary front-yard objects, made bird feeders from pine cones, and developed collages from easy-to-find natural objects.

Quinley said that one young parent talked about how excited she was to hang up her nature collage in her new house. It would be a reminder, she said, that she can “go outside and take a breath” whenever a situation became too stressful.

Jennifer Crosson, volunteer manager at Anna’s House, said some clients are “faithfully coming every week, really enjoying it and really finding some peace.” In addition, staff members who have participated in the sessions have been able to adapt some of the insight to support their work with clients.

“We hope this will last indefinitely,” said Hosmer of the partnership. “We really enjoy the work that we’re doing, and we think we’re making a positive impact.”