Oakland County thanks volunteers at Red Oaks Nature Center

A Western hognose snake named Neville Hogbottom wraps around the fingers of Val Preston, a recreation program specialist and part-time naturalist at the Red Oaks Nature Center at the Suarez Friendship Woods, 30300 Hales St. in Madison Heights, during an open day at the museum Oct. 20.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

The nature center is filled with educational exhibits and features programs throughout the year.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

MADISON HEIGHTS — The Red Oaks Nature Center at Suarez Friendship Woods is one of the city’s best-kept secrets — an oasis of greenery in the heart of Madison Heights, hidden away from the roads, where visitors can enjoy peace and quiet on woodland trails. The experience comes complete with a museum chock-full of educational exhibits.

Yet despite the relative tranquility of the park, there’s a lot of hard work that takes place behind the scenes, driven in large part by volunteers. Recently, county officials paid tribute to them at the nature center, located at 30300 Hales St. across from Red Oaks Waterpark on 13 Mile Road west of Dequindre Road.

Among those recognized were volunteers Jean Linville, George Hankins, Cheryl Charpentier-Hankins, Judy Simpson and Mary Haller, each of whom have been helping at the nature center for at least 10 years, when it was first run by the city of Madison Heights, before later coming under the control of Oakland County Parks and Recreation.

Oakland County Commissioner Gary McGillivray helped broker that deal.

“I have been involved with the nature center since it first opened when I was serving on the City Council, and it has always had a special place in my heart,” said McGillivray, who also chairs the Oakland County Parks and Recreation Commission, in a statement. “It was an honor to have the opportunity to recognize these special longtime volunteers, who share my passion for the nature center and who have donated countless hours to keep it running all these years. I’m very thankful for their efforts.”

Haller, an Oak Park resident, said that she first visited the nature center when her daughter worked with a naturalist there in the early 2000s, a time during which Haller and her husband were living in California. They eventually moved nearby, buying a home that backed up to Suarez Friendship Woods.

“I loved having the woods as my ‘backyard’ and walked almost daily,” Haller said in an email. “I volunteered occasionally then, but started coming weekly after Oakland County took over operations. We welcomed visitors, gave tours, and shared what we knew about the birds, turtles, fish and butterflies. We also helped with seasonal decorating, parties, and supported various programs.

“I’ve often considered the nature center as a community center with all the different programs, birthday parties, community cleanups, Hotdog Fridays, and fall open houses,” she added. “I still come back whenever I’m in the area for a walk in the woods. It’s always magical to me how as soon as I step in the woods, I immediately start breathing deeper, and feel calmer.”

The park itself spans 37 acres and includes 1.3 miles of paved pathways, popular with walkers and bicyclists, as well as those taking their dog for a stroll or watching the many birds that make the woods a stopover on their migratory travels.

There are educational programs throughout the year that make extensive use of the trails, and a special “Storybook Trail” features installations that tell a story as one proceeds along the path.

Sarah Hudson began working at the park as its naturalist eight years ago. She said that since before that time, volunteers have been coming to the center at least once a week to assist with a variety of tasks. She said that volunteers and nature center staff have become like a family, and that the patrons also love interacting with the volunteers.

She described how the volunteers care for the captive animal collection, prepare materials and snacks for programs, greet and direct visitors, create promotional materials for upcoming events, and assist with programs by handling animals for patrons to see and touch, and reading stories.

“Their support has brought a new dynamic to the experience we are able to offer guests, as well as contributed countless hours and effort, allowing staff to serve larger audiences and be more effective with their own work hours,” Hudson said via email.

She noted that the museum’s exhibit space was redone as recently as 2019, and that the live specimens in its collection include a variety of reptiles and amphibians native to Michigan. There is also a kids’ area, a bird-viewing window, and seasonal interactive displays.

“Red Oaks Nature Center, and the park as a whole, are still a hidden jewel to many members of the community. The nature center isn’t visible from the road, or even from the parking lot, and I think many people pass it by without realizing it’s even there,” Hudson said. “But please, come and check out this great resource and experience that’s right in your neighborhood.”

The nature center is free to visit, and is open Tuesday through Sunday all year round.

For more information, call the Red Oaks Nature Center at (248) 585-0100.