Interview with Sam Truby, Grand Rapids Parks Department, GR Outside

By Steven Assarian, Business and Career Librarian

Sam: My name is Sam Truby for the Grand Rapids Parks and Rec Department. Officially I am the Recreation Program Technical Supervisor. A lot of people call me the GR Outside Supervisor. I've been doing this for about three years.

Steve: So how does GR Outside actually fit into the Grand Rapids Parks and Rec Department?

Sam: We are under the Outdoor Recreation umbrella of the department. Anything like your more traditional outdoor rec, like hiking, camping, those sorts of things. Our Gear Library all falls underneath that Outdoor Rec branch too. 

Steve: Tell us a little bit about the Gear Library and how it came to be. 

Sam: We started out in 2019. The city got some grant funding through the Outdoor Foundation. They started a nationwide program called Thrive Outside and they selected four cities around the country to get funding. Essentially, the program’s mission is to promote access and equity around nature in our communities. We were one of the first cities selected. 

And all four of the first cities did something completely different. The Gear Library, a library of outdoor gear that Grand Rapids citizens can rent, really became our focal point. At the time, we thought we might not be able to bring groups of kids outside ourselves due to COVID. We didn't know how long that state was gonna last. 

But really, it's something that I think the community needs regardless of COVID. A big part of what we're trying to accomplish here isn't throwing equipment at people; it's creating community, building skills, opportunities, access. Whether it’s through camping or disc golf or whatever else. 

Steve: What are some of the things you could find in the Gear Library? What are your biggest circulating items? 

Sam: Our yard games are popular because they're so approachable. We've got croquet, giant Jenga, all the big name yard games. We've got everything you need for a hike too: backpacks, clothes, shoes.

Our camping gear is another big hit for us. We do offer a camping certification, and we actually require certification to check out our camping gear. It's our only requirement for any of our gear. For all other Gear Library equipment, you don't need a special course with us to check it out. 

Steve: Walk us through what it takes to get a camping certification.

Sam: It's pretty inexpensive. It’s a $5 course this year, and it's about a two and a half hour course. We do it right here in Roosevelt Park. 

It's really two parts, you know, it's making sure that people feel comfortable with the equipment, to help you have a good time. And then it's also teaching people basic troubleshooting, such as: what do you do if your sleeping bag gets soaking wet? How do you pack things up? What do you do when you're done with your trip? How do you get the sleeping pad back in its bag? Things like that. We teach anywhere from like six to 15 people at a time. 

Steve: So how did you get into outdoor recreation? 

Sam: I used to manage an outdoor gear store. I’d be practicing all the time talking about equipment with people. We were always learning, going out in our tents and making sure we knew how to use the equipment so we could talk about it. The job was all about connecting with people. That’s what we do here at GR Outside. It’s the same work.  

Steve: You all are doing so much already. Where do you see the Gear Library going from here?

Sam: Yeah, that's a good question. We're in a cool moment. Now we’re developing our strategic plans. Until now, we were thinking, what's in our library? What do we do? What's our role in the community? How do we track equipment? All that work is done now, though. So we can look towards our future, and our goals. 

A big part of our work is working with nonprofits, schools, teachers, people who are already in the community and building relationships with families and kids. 

Our vision is more to support people who have been doing work connecting people with the outdoors. Schools are a big goal for us. I would love to see more equipment access for teachers, especially like Grand Rapids Public Schools. I think the water is going to be a big part of our long term vision.

Steve: So you mentioned becoming a member of the Gear Library. What does that entail? And where should a citizen go to get more information?  

Sam: If you're an individual or family, it takes about 10 to 15 minutes. The first time you come in, we go through a simple orientation. We cover all of our policies for the program, and what the experience of the Gear Library will be. Of course, there’s no charge to start a membership. 

This year, we adopted a "pay what you can" rental model. Members essentially opt in or out of paying suggested rental fees, and pay what they choose for their rental items. It's important that people aren't treated differently if they pay anything or borrow items for free. It's intended to be a way for people to support this work financially if they have the means and want to do so. 

If you want to engage with us, and learn more about GR Outside and the Gear Library, Facebook and Instagram are always good, as well as our page on the city’s website. You can find our hours, how to make an appointment, and other information available there.  

Steve: Any final thoughts you'd like to leave with our readers?

Sam: The gear library model is growing around the country. The Outdoors Empowered Network lists other gear libraries, including us, that all meet monthly to share ideas and practices around gear libraries. We’re happy to serve the City of Grand Rapids, and be a part of this growing movement.