Roy Exum: The Conservancy’s ‘Science Class’

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

At first blush a quiet group that calls itself the Lookout Mountain Conservancy hardly piques my interest. I know that they are good stewards of the lands they own and that soon those same 60-odd acres will be a key component to our Riverwalk when it extends its reach to the foot of Lookout Mountain. I also know that John Wilson Park, the catalyst on Cummings Highway, is indeed a jewel where today a dozen different trails offer rich solitude and magnificent views of the city that lies below.

Not long ago I was made privy to a far different side of the Lookout Mountain Conservancy and how an energized board, in full support of CEO Robyn Carlton, is using its lands to nurture, teach, and love some of our young who have never been in the woods before. Heck, at the beginning these kids had never ventured out of South Chattanooga’s inner city as far as Broad Street.

In a remarkable series of happenstance, the Conservancy applied for a grant with the Tennessee-American Water Company to clear a garbage-dump of a ravine on Cummings Highway that leads to the Tennessee River. The TAWC office was studying a similar grant from Howard School to check on the water quality of Chattanooga Creek. Somehow the Lookout Mountain land advocates met some Howard School students and realized they both wanted the same thing – a chance.

The story Robyn tells is strong enough to make you cry. There were about 50 Howard students who volunteered for a special science project and on that first day she asked each of them to introduce the person on their right. Get this: they could not do it, the world each lives in is far too isolated. Then she asked them to introduce themselves. “They only gave me their first names; they were scared to let some of the others know their last names for fear it might lead to where they lived.”

Perhaps it was providence that Robyn had spent 28 years in the mental-health sector. She knew that any yard work brings quick gratification and an immediate sense of self-worth, but, as she started out, Robyn was careful to let the kids teach her as much as she taught them. Within weeks, there blossomed a trust and a kinship stronger than any kudzu vine’s roots.

With the help of the Benwood and Lynnhurst Foundations, the students spent every other Friday at what they pridefully call “Howard Hill” last year. “It was amazing. They took ownership of the project, dividing into teams that made use of one another’s strengths and weaknesses. They are innovators, bright and eager to learn." And,” she added, “they had so much fun because there was nothing to fear.”

Last summer eight applied for summer jobs, getting paid and having to “budget” their earnings as a way to prepare for life. “I found out 95 percent of the money they got was helping support their families, paying the rent and buying the family food,” Robyn said. “Some of these kids are in the 10th and 11th grades and are already paying the rent.”

A national network contacted the conservancy last spring, offering to send teenagers from across America to provide free labor on the trails and lands as part of a summer service project. When the students arrived, each work group was organized and led by – guess what -- a Howard High student. It worked like a charm.

Then there is the one we’ll call “Jack.”  A foster child, he turned 18 this spring, still in the 11th grade. His foster parents quit getting a stipend from the state and “Jack” was promptly told it was time “for you to learn to be a man.” He was given a deadline to get out of where he had lived and it appeared he would soon be a homeless teenager.

Ms. Carlton couldn’t get him off her mind. The kid is a natural leader, the vice president of his class, so Robyn went to the board. It seems the conservancy had recently purchased some land on Old Wauhatchie Pike that included two houses. The very next day after the deal closed, both air-conditioning units were stolen from the houses.

So Robyn took a deep breath and asked her board if they would allow “Jack” to become the conservancy’s  groundskeeper, paid by being allowed to stay in the house that holds the tools and equipment the agency uses every day. The deal included a 9 p.m. curfew, a review of his report card, and perfect behavior, among other things. Are you kidding me, the vote was unanimous.

“Jack” gleefully signed on. And got more than he bargained for. One board member after another drove by the house, providing cookware, linens, towels, sheets and all else “Jack” would need, if I might borrow a phrase, “to become a man.” He has a refrigerator, washer and dryer. All he needs, and what a man he has turned out to be. “We are all so proud of him,” said board member Sally Faulkner. “I saw him at Walgreen’s the other night and he gave me a huge hug, telling me how happy he is and that life is great.”

Asked if she ever thought her CEO role would include being a social worker, a teacher and a friend, Robyn laughed, “It makes it a lot more interesting! Seriously, you can’t help but get involved with these teenagers because they are so eager to please you. They feel better about themselves, take great pride in what they do, and soak up every bit of advice and knowledge they can.

“They ride bicycles or walk several miles to work and back. They are never late. What’s more, they love the land, the woods, and the trails. When I told them they had just as much of a right to come here as I did, they didn’t believe me at first but now they’ll bring their families to picnic or go on a hike.”

Howard High officials say every child in the program has benefitted immensely from “the science class” and marvel at the skills and teamwork the students have learned. “When Gandhi’s grandson visited Chattanooga not long ago, he spent several days at Howard and told the students two very important things. He told them, ‘Be part of the changes you want to see’ and ‘Rid yourself of a violent environment from within,’” Robyn said. “I have seen it work. And it really works.”

Last week Robyn Carlton was the keynote speaker at a national convention of land trust groups in New Orleans. For maybe five minutes she told over 5,000 people that the Lookout Mountain Conservancy was thriving, that generous benefactors have enabled key purchases that will enhance the Riverwalk, and that further donations will assure  scenic beauty and breathless views in the years to come.

And then Robyn told about “The Howard Project,”  how an unseeming marriage between inner city students and the base of a centuries-old mountain had changed both in a way that will last for years to come. The ovation was so deafening it could almost be heard all the way from Louisiana.

* * *

To learn more about the Lookout Mountain Conservancy, or to financially help meet a critical land option that expires Oct. 15, or to work alongside the Howard High “science class” some Friday, contact CEO Robyn Carlton at or call 423/424.3882. To make a tax-deductible donation, checks may be sent to P.O. Box 76, Lookout Mountain, Tennessee 37350.

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