Nathan Chamberlain, third from left, is honored by Morris Hill Baptist Church pastor Bill Mason, District 7 Hamilton County Commissioner Sabrena Smedley and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, from left, for receiving the Freedom Award, which recognizes the highest level of achievement in Trail Life USA.(Contributed photo)

Trail Life USA recently handed out its first Freedom Award in the Chattanooga area. Chartered nationally in 2013 and locally in 2014, the organization is meant to offer a more spiritual alternative to the Boy Scouts of America.

Nathan Chamberlain of East Brainerd-based Trail Life Troop TN-0069 was the first member in Chattanooga and the fifth in Tennessee to be awarded for reaching the organization's highest level of achievement.

In a character-focused environment, troop members from kindergarten to 12th grade earn badges for doing community service and learning survival skills while they explore the outdoors under Christian leadership. Since the East Brainerd troop's open house to recruit new members in August, the nearly 50 members have planned camping trips, fishing days and visits to local historic areas.

To receive the award, Nathan had to earn a minimum number of badges and organize his own community service project before his 18th birthday.

For his project, Nathan partnered with Audubon Acres to build a safety railing along one of the park's steepest trails. The project was requested by Audubon and has been well-received, he said. Before the railing was implemented, a fall on the trail — and a resultant emergency room visit — was likely, said Tommy Chamberlain, Nathan's father, who is also one of the nearly 15 active leaders of the East Brainerd troop.

While Nathan's award sets a valuable precedent for the rest of the boys in Chattanooga Trail Life, said his father, he also stressed the program's flexibility and more universal benefits.

"Every kid that comes into the program isn't going to win this award — that's not what we are focused on," Tommy Chamberlain said. "I like that we're not so requirement driven and badge driven. There are more eternal and intrinsic things the boys get out of Trail Life."

While the leadership and direction of Trail Life is distinctly Christian, Chamberlain encouraged anyone and everyone to join the troop.

The program is divided up by age group, with appropriate programming for each.

Elementary school boys in kindergarten through fifth grade participate in the Woodland program. Last month, the troop's Woodland boys had a fishing day at Booker T. Washington State Park, with leaders, dads and boys fishing all afternoon.

"Some did better than others," Chamberlain said with a chuckle. "Some would only fish for 10 minutes and then wonder where the sandwiches are."

The Woodland Trail age group makes up most of East Brainerd's troop, with nearly 40 boys actively participating.

Middle and high school age boys can join the Navigators and the Adventurers, respectively. Chamberlain said the older boys in the East Brainerd troop are really in to camping, and just partnered with the Soddy-Daisy troop to canoe 10 miles on the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas.

Trail Life troops are sponsored by local churches, which charter them and provide a place for the boys to meet. The East Brainerd troop meets Monday nights at 7 at Morris Hill Baptist Church. Middle school troop members (Navigators) and high school troop members (Adventurers) meet at the trail house at the top of the church property. Elementary school troop members (Woodland Trail) meet in the foundation, which is below the gymnasium.

To get involved in the East Brainerd troop, contact Tommy Chamberlain at 838-1511 or