Cook: How to build a trail

Cook: How to build a trail

April 3rd, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.


* What: The Golden Cairn Awards, honoring outdoor leaders and clubs

* Where: Miller Plaza

* When: Today at 7:00 p.m.

* Cost: $35 in advance, $40 at the door; BBQ buffet, Chattanooga Brewing Co.

You begin by knowing the obstacles before you, the things you have to avoid.

Boulders to dodge. Streams to cross. Trees to navigate around. Building a trail means you keep one eye on the ground at your feet, and the other on the horizon: where you are, and where you want to be.

The same is true for young people in Chattanooga. We know where we want them to go: to a horizon with dignified jobs, healthy relationships, and a true-north knowledge of the human self.

But when we look at the landscape of today, where they are, we find a tangled forest of brokenness and a glimmering pop culture that is anything but transformational and empowering.

So how do we build a trail for kids today that leads them out of shadows and into the sunshine?

"Service to our nation," Brenna Kelly said.

Kelly directs the Southeast Youth Corps, an FDR-esque program that relies on a tried-and-true formula: When teenagers encounter the natural world through acts of service, then beautiful things happen.

"What I've seen has moved me to tears," she said.

SYC takes teens from The Howard School on weekly mountain bike trips. They're partnering with Girls Inc. for a summer bike camp that would combine mountain biking with conservation service and photojournalism, as girls document the land around them. There's an earn-a-bike program, which over five months teaches teens bike skills and service, allowing them to earn a bike while also encountering one another.

(The current group is beautifully diverse: "One Tanzanian, one Latina, three African Americans, and one Caucasian," Kelly said).

SYC also hosts the Americorps Conservation Group, which brings in 18-to-25-year-olds for weeks of conservation and service work.

But perhaps the most life-altering experience is the summertime Youth Conservation Corps.

It is immersion and initiation - area teens spend Monday through Friday in the woods, camping with each other and trained, professional crew leaders.

It is sweat equity and service - they rebuild rock walls, make trails in state forests and local parks.

It is an investment in community - teens from all these different zip codes and neighborhoods work and bond together.

"I've seen and worked with kids who were middle-class happy-go-lucky to participants in gangs who had stab wounds to others who slept in the back of cars," she said.

It is an unofficial school of sorts, as young people work and build and solve problems and resolve conflicts together, learning all these integral qualities this coming world will demand.

"Soft skills and grit," Kelly said.

Perhaps most importantly, the experience gives them one thing they need most.

"Something transformational," she said.

Like a chrysalis, their better selves emerge. Kelly calls it a 360-degree-experience, which means all parts of the self are affected. It transforms them. It transforms our land. It transforms our nation.

"Everybody deserves to have that experience at least once in their life," she said.

(There are still spots open for this summer's corps along with a need for volunteers and project partners. Visit

Tonight, SYC is hosting the 2014 Golden Cairn Awards, which honors local individuals and clubs that are instrumental in making Chattanooga the outdoor city it is. The night is an outdoors awards party; an online poll ended earlier this week, which let folks vote on the nominees from different categories.

There's Joey Howe and Alan Outlaw. SORBA. Wild Trails. Southeastern Climbers Coalition. Anders Swanson. Hallie McFadden and Karah Nazor. Greg Foster. Andy Sweet. And many others.

Not only does the night celebrate our outdoor ambassadors, it also asks us to consider who will one day take their place.

"What if there's a whole generation of younger kids that are overweight and unattached?" she asked. "Where is Chattanooga going to go in the future without that younger generation that cares about natural resources and trails and habitat?"

This is the trail that SYC is building: an engaged and service-minded youth that leads others out of the dark woods and toward a better America.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.