Some of the very best things seem to evolve almost by chance, and one of those things involves a great big mess at the foot of Lookout Mountain. The John C. Wilson Park, where the old waterslide used to be on Cummings Highway, is a lovely spot, but a nearby ravine, overgrown with invasives, brush and decades of trash, detracted from it. And we’re not talking about a few cigarette butts and a plastic water bottle or two. Before this particular spot was the home of the Super Water Slide, (touted as the longest in the world), it housed a motel called Big Rock Court, notorious for gambling, police raids and shootouts. The beautiful large boulder nearby (hence the name) was painted in large white letters advertising the motel.
Although this spot was unsavory, other nearby properties were equally unappealing. The Scenic Adult Motel and a neglected trailer were neighbors.
The history of this particular property is important – too important to be junked up. Or at least John C. Wilson, publisher of chattanoogan.com, thought so. Mr. Wilson knew that the historic Federal Road, the first road through this area, was built in 1805 near the property.
Due to his foresight, energy and organization, the Lookout Mountain Conservancy was established to protect Lookout Mountain’s scenic, historic and ecological resources for both current and future generations. And although the organization was successful in cleaning out the old junk car lot where the John C. Wilson Park is, it needed help with the overwhelming amount of overgrowth and trash. The LMC applied for a grant with the Tennessee-American Water Company, and as a result, was paired with volunteers from nearby Howard High School.
Although the park and the school are close in proximity, they are far apart in many ways. Most of the volunteer students from Howard had never ventured to the other side of Broad Street. In exchange for free lunches and excused absences from school, this group of volunteers grappled with invasive privet and gigantic kudzu roots, cleaning up about a century’s worth of trash, as well. Everything from car parts to refrigerators was hauled out, including almost 700 tires.
What started as a chance to leave school eight years ago and work on a finite project – cleaning up a trashy gully at the John C. Wilson Park – turned into an ongoing mutualistic relationship. The LMC now employs a powerful workforce made of students who attend Howard. And the interns benefit from much more than an hourly wage. Besides working in a safe environment under supervision, the interns are mentored, learning about nature, conservation, teamwork and trust. Both social and profession skills are emphasized and reiterated each week the Howard students show up to work, and the effects of these skills are evident at school.
According to LMC director Robin Carlton, both grades and attendance consistently improve after the LMC internship, and secondary education is on the horizon for most interns, a first in the family for many.
“Our engagement with The Howard School students and their families has opened [my] eyes to a future that embraces ALL of us just where we are," said Ms. Carlton on lookoutmountainconservancy.org. "Over the years I have heard countless stories from our interns reflecting the social injustices, economic disparity, racial divides, and restrained mobility. It has forced [the LMC board] to look at the brutal ugliness and have uncomfortable conversations about reality. The board and staff of Lookout Mountain Conservancy made a commitment eight years ago to stand by our neighbors and to fight for what is just and fair as human beings.”
And we can help. Check out the Lookout Mountain Conservancy on Facebook, and join the fun for the drive-through LMC Shrimp Boil that benefits the Howard Interns, aka Howard Rock Stars.
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(Ferris Robinson is the author of two children's books, "The Queen Who Banished Bugs" and "The Queen Who Accidentally Banished Birds," in her pollinator series, with "Call Me Arthropod" coming soon. "Making Arrangements" is her first novel, and "Dogs and Love - Stories of Fidelity" is a collection of true tales about man's best friend. Her website is ferrisrobinson.com. She is the editor of The Lookout Mountain Mirror and The Signal Mountain Mirror. Ferris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )