Since its inception, Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center has believed in the power of outdoor education. Now, with workforce help from green|spaces and grant funding through Southface, the center aims to be a safe haven for students throughout COVID-19 and beyond.
Thanks to a partnership with green|spaces and grant funding from The Lyndhurst Foundation and Southface, the Nature Center was already on its way to becoming more energy efficient and environmentally friendly prior to 2020’s unexpected quarantine, said Reflection Riding President Mark McKnight.
“As a nature center, they are trying to make their work practices and facilities more conducive to tending to the land — and really the overall health of the environment — they are taking care of,” explained green|spaces Program Director Christian Shackelford.
Mr. Shackelford’s work with Reflection Riding is multifaceted. Some days, he’s providing recommendations on complicated wiring that needs to be redone in some of the center’s oldest buildings. Others, he serves as a connector and facilitator to other funding sources or programs that can help not only with the remodel, but the ability of the center to safely provide programming throughout COVID-19 shutdowns.
“We provide the little bit of technical expertise that they need, as well as the understanding and language to be able to communicate with the engineers at Southface,” he explained, adding that green|spaces’ workforce development program, Build It Green, plays a key role in the ongoing renovations.
With the uncertainty of what the 2020-2021 school year will look like, removing barriers to outdoor access and educational opportunities many public school students only experience through field trips or other group activities is more urgent than ever, Mr. McKnight said. Short term, that includes offering membership passes any Chattanooga resident can “check out” at the library (curbside delivery is possible) to alleviate cost burdens for those who could not otherwise afford to pay any fees for entry.
Reflection Riding has also helped provide four scholarships to the Wauhatchie Forest School located on its property, thanks to private donors. And, Mr. McKnight added, some of these spots are still available for the fall program.
In a world where student health is even more directly impacted by access to resources, clean air, and engaging educational opportunities, the center is uniquely positioned to be able to provide safer opportunities, said officials. Part of this is simply the large amount of outdoor space available, Mr. McKnight acknowledges, allowing for a wide range of socially distanced activities. However, he said, days of studies and research into how other nature centers across the U.S. were keeping their employees and students also played a key role in the success of new, limited summer programming this year. And as a result, the center saw zero reported COVID-19 cases throughout the entire program.
Now, thanks in part to the structural updates, the center hopes to shift this program model to the fall, where they would otherwise see students regularly through field trips and other school-sanctioned activities.
“There are a lot of barriers to the outdoors, cost for sports, for private kindergartens, ... if you believe outdoor recreation and education is important, it needs to be accessible to everyone,”
Mr. McKnight said. “We’re trying to make that possible and we really believe in it. … We've been preaching this for 65 years as an organization so it's strange to see it catching on so quickly for such an unexpected reason.”
Thankfully, he added, the improvements were planned prior to 2020, falling into place at the perfect time.
“Knowing that nonprofits need support in becoming more resource-efficient during a time when their services are needed more than ever to build resilient communities, we are so pleased to help provide a safe, healthy place for students in an amazing outdoor environment, during this pandemic period and beyond,” said Southface Institute President Andrea Pinabell.
The Chambliss and Humphreys families created the public park space in the 1950s, and the center’s mission has always been focused on native plant species as well as general outdoor education. The property is also home to Wauhatchie Forest School, a private school focused on incorporating nature and play into day-to-day education. The center is also working to create partnerships with Calvin Donaldson Elementary and The Bethlehem Center, to expand access and opportunity to more students.
"Years ago, the nature center was kind of at the forefront of all that,” Mr. McKnight said. “A lot of the
buildings did have early adaptations of sustainability ... but our buildings are about 40 years old so it was time for an update and to make improvements. And I wanted to do that in the original spirit. If we're teaching people about nature, we should obviously be doing this sustainably."
The center is also a refuge for native red wolves, who cannot be found in the area outside of the protected habitat cultivated by Reflection Riding staff and volunteers.
“It’s a little refuge right outside of Chattanooga,” Mr. Shackelford said. “It’s so close to downtown
and yet it feels so set aside from time. It’s a beautiful urban nature reserve.”
To learn more about Reflection Riding, visit https://www.reflectionriding.org/