Putting Community First

The Friends of White Clay Creek State Park have received a grant for a campground from REI, “a purpose-driven company.” The project will be finished this autumn.

When nationwide outdoor and recreation outfitter REI— Recreational Equipment Inc.—opened a new location at the Christiana Fashion Center in the fall of 2015, it wasn’t just another addition to what is now 149 stores throughout the country. Instead, it was an example of the altruistic premise under which the 79-year-old company operates: business strategy should align with positive social and environmental impact.

As a consumer co-op rather than a standard publicly-traded company, REI has the means and vision to serve each community in which its stores are located. Simply put, it aims to help. And it does so in a big way. In 2015, REI gave away more than 72 percent of its profits, most of which went to an employee bonus program and local communities.

Under its Stewardship program, location managers and employees around the country develop relationships with local nonprofit organizations to target the needs of each community. As part of the initiative, REI provides grants to select organizations that have a good partnership with that local REI staff. The 2016 report is not out yet, but in 2015 REI invested $8.5 million in more than 300 nonprofits working to steward and increase access to more than 1,000 “inspiring” outdoor places.

Hikers on a trail in White Clay Creek State Park. Photo Joe del Tufo

Over the years, REI has made grants to bordering states, including the Pineland Preservation Alliance from REI’s Marlton, N.J., branch, and, in Pennsylvania, to the Valley Forge State Park from the Conshohocken location.

“After that, then it’s about a grant itself,” says Christiana REI Manager Adam Orenstein. “Creating access is one thing we really look for in our grants, as well as stewardship, trail maintenance, getting more trail use and more access to the outdoors. Once a place submits a grant, the folks at headquarters review and see what aligns best with our mission.”

Recently, Delaware made the cut for a grant project: White Clay Creek State Park will now have its first-ever campground.

The 3,300-acre meld of forests, meadows, streams, historical sites, and 37 miles of trail surrounding Newark is the soon-to-be location of primitive campsites. That’s thanks to the Friends of White Clay Creek State Park. The nonprofit, run by volunteers who support the park, applied for the $12,500 REI grant.

The money will go toward labor, plus equipment such as picnic tables, fire pits, grates, water spigots, etc.
As of now, there are two to three TBA location possibilities for the campground, and the total project should be complete this fall. Considerations like environmental impact and habitat are being taken into account, Orenstein notes, so nobody wants to rush the venture.

“Now the community at large will have opportunities to go camping in their backyard, and this will encourage more hiking, and create onramps to give people better access to parks,” says Orenstein. “Hopefully it can help some of our local scout groups and clubs. People will teach overnight backpacking and survival classes.”

If the state park or the Friends group need volunteer assistance, REI employees are happy to help. Otherwise, the project is totally in the hands of The Friends of White Clay.

This isn’t the first REI grant to the Friends group; in 2015, REI donated a sum to install a handful of bike stations, pumps and tools.

Since REI established a Delaware branch, the state parks system has been a major supporter of the company’s initiatives, like its unprecedented #OptOutside campaign, says Orenstein. “They believe, like we do, that a life outdoors is a life well-lived.”

#OptOutside started in 2015 when REI closed all locations on Black Friday, processed no online sales, and encouraged customers and employees to spend time outdoors rather than joining hordes of shoppers. REI repeated the campaign again on Black Friday in 2016, and six million people, including 12,287 employees and 275 national organizations, participated.

“We’ve got a lot of visions,” says Orenstein. “We want our local REI to continue to engage and have activations long-term. We’ve only been open for a little longer than a year, so we know we haven’t fully tapped into the outdoor community as a whole.”

Delaware Children in Nature, Clean Water Delaware and Trail Spinners are three other local organizations, aside from White Clay, that REI is forming relationships with.

“We are driven by our values,” says Orenstein. “We’re a purpose-driven company rather than a profit-driven company.”