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The Preserves Are for You: Leading others into nature, one step at a time

Rev. Adrian Heath wants to encourage more people of color to find the peace that nature offers. (Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

The Forest Preserve District launched a campaign this year called "The Preserves Are for You." As part of the campaign, we are featuring the stories of people of varied cultures and abilities who spend time in the preserves. You will learn how they came to love nature and how the preserves enhance their lives. Here is the story of the Rev. Adrian Heath, a lifelong Joliet resident.

Background

For most of his life, the Rev. Adrian Heath worked construction and raised his three daughters with his wife, Rose. But as he grew older, he was drawn to help others through religion and nature. When COVID-19 hit, the ordained minister looked for new ways to help members of his community cope with the global pandemic. “People are stressed out today,” he said during an interview at Rock Run Preserve. “There’s a lot going on. People are worried.“

He now works with area churches to help parishioners and members of the black community embrace healthier lifestyles with good eating habits and outdoor excursions in Will County forest preserves. He organizes free kayaking, biking, hiking, fishing and camping programs in the preserves through his non-profit Redeemed Connection Ministries NFP. And Heath says many who were reluctant to try something new have become regular preserve patrons.

Heath acknowledges that there is a nature gap where people of color have not always felt as welcome in outdoor spaces. He said that is why he targets certain ZIP codes for his ministry and the nature programs he organizes.

“I promote and market the programs there because in those ZIP codes, there are people there who haven’t gotten out and don’t even know that many of these places exist. Don’t even know what’s there.

“A lot of times, if you go to some of these places, you don’t see any of us, African Americans or people of color. And the preserves are often in out of the way places. But once people realize how safe they are, people don’t bother you and everyone is welcoming, it’s very important.”

Upbringing

Heath, 65, grew up one of 11 children on the east side of Joliet where most of his recreational outings were inside buildings.

“Years ago, the YMCA was a block away from our house,” he said. “We played basketball and I actually learned to swim at the downtown YMCA, and they took us to the Boys Club on Clinton Street.”

He attended Joliet Central High School and Montay College’s addictions and family counseling program and he has a degree in counseling. Heath said he had trouble with alcohol years ago, received help and now he wants to help others. He attended Moody Bible Institute and was licensed as a minister in 1992 and ordained in 2003.

He said his interest in nature began in his high school years when he worked for the Joliet Park District mowing grass.

“I walked around and cleaned up and got to know the parks,” he said. “And my family had a big gathering every year at a park. We had a big picnic, barbecue, games, tug of war, softball.”

In his 20s and 30s, he discovered fishing and hunting through a friend he met at work.

“He lived off the Kankakee River and I would visit him, and we would boat and fish and I would see kids out jet skiing and swimming in the river.”

Outdoor water sports weren’t something he had grown up experiencing because, “There were no lakes near Joliet Street,” he said.

Preserve Love

Through the years, his love of nature has only grown stronger.

“I think what I get out of it is the peace,” he said. “You can just come out here and reflect on things, you can connect with nature. It doesn’t matter if you are a believer or a non-believer, when you come out here you see nature, you see the trees, you see the birds, the water and the trails.”

Heath loves kayaking and biking and he loves how family friendly the preserves are.

“You can sit under a shelter and grill and let the kids take a walk,” he said. “They can ride their bikes. And you can camp.”

Rev. Adrian Heath and his family. 

He can't help but want to share his love of nature with others. He said his message to those who don't know how to start is simple: 

“Take the time out to find a preserve near you,” he said he tells them. “Take the time out to view the Forest Preserve’s website. Choose three locations that you want to explore that connect to something you want to do.

“Whether it’s just getting out to get stress off you, whether it’s getting out to take a walk, whether it’s biking, whether it’s kayaking or fishing. Just visit that site. Take someone with you or go by yourself. It’s safe, you don’t have to worry. I believe once people have done that, they will begin to explore more, to connect more with the preserves."

Spreading the Word

In 2020 when the COVID pandemic started Heath was no longer able to offer in-person instruction through a lawn care job training program he had started in 2011.

“I got frustrated and tried to find something to do and I started going back to the preserves,” he said. “I was walking and trying to release my stress through outdoor activities.”

After Heath and his son-in-law signed up for a Forest Preserve District hiking program at Hickory Creek Preserve, he said the answer to his dilemma was clear. He could still help people by shifting his ministry to outdoor activities.

In 2021 and 2022 he partnered with the Forest Preserve District to offer nature programs through his ministry.

“We now offer programs in kayaking, biking, walking, sunset viewing in the preserves and introducing people to different places,” he said. “One of the unique things we do to get people to come out into the preserves is we offer them $10 gift cards and a certificate of completion after we introduce them to nature. We also provide them a handout for healthy living and healthy eating. Living right, eating right are so important.

“We have a lot of people who are interested in the preserves now and are out walking and biking,” he added. “They have introduced their family and friends to the preserves.”

Heath thinks back now about the earlier years in his life and how he passed nature by without realizing what he was missing.

“I drove by Rock Run Preserve I don’t know how many times and didn’t pull in here,” he said. “And 2020 is when I came in.”

Since then, Heath has visited many more preserves and he proudly whips out a list to read off the names.

“I have been to Hadley Valley, Hammel Woods, Hickory Creek, Joliet Iron Works Historical Site, Lake Chaminwood Preserve, Lake Renwick, Rock Run Preserve, McKinley Woods, Messenger Woods, Monee Reservoir, Rock Run Rookery Preserve, Sugar Creek Preserve and Whalon Lake.”

Heath said when he has an event at a preserve, he cooks healthy food, talks about nature, and has Forest Preserve staff present information on outdoor activities and species.

And while some of his program attendees are at first reluctant to camp outside or to kayak on the water, after attending a program and getting instructions, most ask, “When are we doing this again, and can I just come out here anytime?” he said. “And I tell them, ‘yes, you can come out anytime the preserves are open.'”

And while he is leading more and more people out into nature, Heath still takes time to visit on his own.

“I put my headset on, and I walk to jazz and gospel music,” he said. “And when I get done, I come back to my truck, I grab my little cooler, I have my water or my Gatorade and the newspaper and I sit down and relax.”

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