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NWP Global Registry of Apprentice Ecologists - Overton Park, Memphis, Tennessee, USA

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Overton Park, Memphis, Tennessee, USA
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Registered: December 2012
City/Town/Province: Carrollton
Posts: 1
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In the summer of 2012, I had just completed my freshmen year at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. As I had progressed through this year, I quickly became acquainted with the ecological area within the city and was astounded to find that many young people lacked knowledge of these green components. Children of any age traipsed around with babysitters in downtown areas, unaware of the beauty of their local Overton Park. Even adults ignored this luscious forest, many of them ignorant of the work that went into forming it. I decided a change needed to occur in this grand city. During the summer of my freshmen year, I took the issue to the Overton Park Conservancy and begged them to give me a chance to help. They agreed, and after finding a stable place to stay in Memphis following the school year, it became my mission to instill within children and adults alike an appreciation and love for their local natural forest.
The Old Forest within Overton Park is a 126-acre area of untouched wildlife. This forest’s aged and virtually undisturbed natural space provides citizens with an observation into a rare ecosystem. The virgin forest is a rare commodity within the United States, particularly the mid-south region. There is no other forest of this size within a city the size of Memphis, with some trees here upwards of 200 years. These beautiful native Tulip Poplars and Sweetgum trees only stand today due to conservation efforts in the 80s, when the Citizens to Preserve Overton Park (CPOP) took a stand against a government which wanted to bulldoze this land for a highway. It is thanks to these brave citizens that the forest stands today, with sweet Muscadine grapes dangling from the canopy alongside decadent Pawpaw fruits. I wanted others within Memphis to feel the same as me, and sought to create a tour program that would allow people of any age to learn about this natural gem. This project, however, was essential to more than merely introducing a natural paradise to citizens. After much deliberation, I set up four main goals for my work, each important in their own ways. It was first essential that the program be developed to preserve and celebrate the Old Forest’s historic resources. The land has so much history embedded within the roots of the flowers and spreading branches of the trees that much of it still remains undiscovered. Next, the tour would ideally function as a way to support the natural ecological processes found in the Old Forest. This would enable the third goal of preserving and maintaining the Old Forest’s native habitat to be achieved. The ultimate aim of this tour, however, was to provide and increase access to recreation and sustainable activities within this rare ecosystem.
I began this project by working with those administrators responsible for the management of Overton Park. This organization, deemed the Overton Park Conservancy, is a non-profit which seeks to preserve the historical integrity and natural beauty of this forest. Their goals of improving safety and creating a family-friendly environment proved to be compatible with my hopes. With their aid, I developed a volunteer system which would be self-replacing, and would require minimal funds. These volunteers would receive a basic training in botany and child education, allowing them the foundation of knowledge to teach others through forest tours. However, as time went by, I came to understand that these forest tours would only benefit those who already loved the forest. Children with a minimal understanding of nature’s importance would never choose to participate in these tours. I therefore began a larger phase of this project, aimed at targeting at-risk and disadvantaged youth. Efforts were then focused on developing a tour program which would function as a school field trip. Research was done into the essential components of the Tennessee core curriculum, as well as missions developed under “Project Learning Tree”. I spent one to two months in this research phase, until I felt secure. Then I switched gears, and began to draw out plans for a learning experience in the forest. I developed sections, focused on the three main parts of science education: K-4th, 5th-8th, and 9th-12th. These sections tackled important chunks of the science curriculum, allowing students hands-on opportunities to observe photosynthesis, symbiotic relationships, and invasive species. As this progressed, the individual sections became so concentrated that we were able to offer teachers the opportunity to focus their tour, depending on age. The class could focus on plant or animal life, inter-species relationships, or the importance of sustainability.
Once the outlines of this tour program were completed, I began testing it out on pilot groups. Children from different ages and walks of life were offered a chance to experience this program free of any charge, with the stipulation that they offer advice in return. The results were astounding. 6 year olds begged their parents to let them return to the forest, while 12-19 year olds asked if they could be tour leaders. Teachers asked for information to bring their future classes back, and church leaders begged for the opportunity to return. This project had advanced far past my farthest dreams. Children and adults alike loved being a part of this opportunity, and wanted to help extend the reaches of this project past my 5-volunteer operation. I could now offer something I had only dreamed of before. Tours would be free to any school with at-risk or disadvantaged youth, as well as communities seeking to reduce juvenile crime. Schools in more advantaged areas were asked to simply donate what they could, be it volunteer hours or monetary donations. Again, the results were awe-inspiring. By the end of the summer, the project had increased visitation to the park by the hundreds. This meant that littering was reduced by over 80 percent, allowing a better visit to families. This also allowed a reduction in operation costs, as more student and adult volunteers were concentrated on education instead of trash pick-up. The concept of environmental friendliness also became more visible, as exemplified by the increase in recycling programs following the tour. Schools who participated in this program tended to allow a greater concentration to recycling programs and other green efforts.
Throughout the span of this project, I was non-ceremoniously yanked out of my comfort zone. My development process and end results were analyzed by many, and I led so many public tours that I lost my voice. I must admit that I never felt wholly confident. I was always aware that the tour could somehow be “better”, or the writing more pristine. And yet, I believe now that this constant scrutiny is what enabled me to finish with a product that is continued today. This project has been handed over to the staff at Overton Park Conservancy, who is applying to various government fund programs which would enable them to reach out to even more communities. Already, awards totaling about $10,000 have been granted to the program, allowing them to provide transportation and lunch to disadvantaged schools. And I, changed through this experience, am now pursuing a degree in Humanities with a focus of Environmental Studies.
I personally continue to offer my services as a tour leader to Overton Park Conservancy, and still make an effort to promote this project across the metropolis. For next summer, I plan to participate in a field experience in Namibia, where I will work with the Cheetah Conservation Fund. It is my hope that these experiences in environmental studies will endure, and I will continue to accrue essential knowledge. Though my future is unclear, I know that one person can have a grand impact on the environment. I will therefore continue my efforts to benefit the world, and create a safe place for children and adults alike to learn to love nature.
Date: December 21, 2012 Views: 4880 File size: 29.3kb, 257.4kb : 375 x 500
Hours Volunteered: 200
Volunteers: 6
Authors Age & Age Range of Volunteers: 21 & 18 to 50
Area Restored for Native Wildlife (hectares): 50.4
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