By Mary McGowan
Located to the northwest of the City of Greenville, South Carolina, Berea Elementary is a K5 – 5th Title I school with just under 500 students. Our area lacks connectivity to Greenville’s Swamp Rabbit Trail network, and our students and their families don’t have many safe, local places to enjoy outdoor recreation. Thanks to a $1500 Community Change Grant from America Walks, we were able to undertake a project that not only provided an amenity for our school but also allowed us to better connect with the surrounding neighborhood and local community. Our .4-mile nature trail, running along the school’s perimeter, had seen better days. It was overgrown, neglected, and in dire need of revitalization. With the help of our dedicated community members, we were able to restore this once-hidden gem into a vibrant space for learning, recreation, and community connections.
The Berea Elementary Nature Trail History
The Berea Elementary nature trail was initially established in 1999 by a program called Leadership Greenville to promote outdoor education focused on science, and to connect our students with nature. Over the years, however, it had fallen into disrepair. Nature had taken over, and the two bridges that mark the start and end of the path had started to decay. It was time for a change, and America Walks’ generous grant was the spark that was needed to ignite this transformation.
This project would not have been possible without many volunteer hours and skills generously shared by community groups. Local scout troops, churches, and students from the high school down the street all lent a helping hand. Volunteers from these groups participated in several workdays over the course of the 2022-2023 school year, clearing away litter, hacking through the overgrowth, and rebuilding the two bridges that were central to the trail’s functionality and beauty. By May of 2023, our overgrown path had a soft opening for student use, with a beautiful new trailhead sign installed in August.
A Trail for Everyone
One thing we were careful about with this project was to avoid pigeonholing the use of the trail to just science-based learning. Since the pandemic, we have learned the value of spending time in nature, getting fresh air and physical activity, and coming together as a community. Therefore, we decided to use open-ended trail markers on the original posts with numbers 1-20, so that by using different lists, any teacher could adapt the trail to their class’s specific needs. One list might consist of species and habitats to look for near the post so that a science class could make observations as the trail was originally intended.
Another list might be stretches or exercises that a PE class could do while walking or jogging from one post to the next. Still, another list could allow a class to participate in a ‘story walk’ where each number corresponds to the pages of a book that can be read aloud. This open-ended format allows for just about any class or small group to be able to use the trail for educational purposes. This provides us with a classroom without walls, where students can experience the wonders of the natural world firsthand. Learning outdoors has been shown to boost academic performance, promote physical health, and encourage environmental stewardship. Thanks to this project, our students now have this opportunity right at their doorstep.
This Trail is Just the Beginning
We are thrilled to say that our nature trail project is just beginning, and will continue to grow and develop more uses and creative applications. Thanks to the investment already made in the trail, we received additional grant funding from a local credit union to install bench seating along the trail. We were also fortunate to have the Berea Elementary nature trail adopted by a group of local master gardeners. Their expertise and dedication will allow us to continue making improvements to the trail and the surrounding green space by planting native and beneficial species to enhance the beauty and biodiversity of species along the trail. This collaboration will provide ongoing maintenance to ensure that the trail remains a beautiful and vibrant space for our students and the community for years to come.
The $1500 Community Change Grant from America Walks has transformed Berea Elementary and our local community in ways that extend far beyond the physical restoration of a nature trail. It has brought people together, created a source of community pride, and provided our students with a unique learning experience. The project reminds us that when we work together, we can accomplish something truly positive for our community, and it’s a testament to the power of collaboration, dedication, and belief in the potential of our shared spaces. The Berea Elementary nature trail, once forgotten and overgrown, now thrives as a symbol of what we can achieve when we come together with a common purpose.