As I sit back and think about acts of kindness bestowed upon me throughout my life, I am so humbled. People are good. People care. People will be there for you in times of struggle. We are in challenging times right now. I frequently don’t recognize faces behind the masks. I can’t stop in to visit and hug an old friend. The simple things that we took for granted — shopping, school, appointments, social visits — have become quite stressful, and for many non-existent. This isolation can be so debilitating. We are social creatures, and social connection is essential to our well-being. It is at times like this that I return to the trails, to nature.
In 1987, I, along with a fellow teacher, and 24 Homer Middle School students took on the goal of designing and building a trail system with fitness elements on the undeveloped borough land behind the school. The fitness elements have long since disappeared, but the trail system lives on. This in-town trail with a short connection from the middle school trail to the Pratt Museum trail is heavily used by locals in the area.
In the mid-1990s, the spruce bark beetle infestation decimated the old growth forest throughout Homer. The habitat behind the school saw extensive damage, as did the trail, but footsteps continued along the muddy remains. Over the years individuals connected to the school worked to bring life back to this trail, but the task was quite daunting. I stayed connected to these projects hoping to be able to contribute and have an impact.
In 2016, a federally funded “Schoolyard Habitat” program was a much-needed energy boost, but improvement efforts only scratched the surface. Sensing support within the school administration, I was able to secure a small pocket of school funding combined with a personable contribution, and hired out some major drainage work throughout this trail system. This work was critical for sustained success. But more important was the recruitment of retired teachers, present day teachers, a large number of community members and the HMS student body to volunteer some sweat equity. Over the years I estimate at least 200-plus individuals have volunteered on this trail system alone. With a little bit of TLC, this trail system will sustain itself well into the future for our school students and community members to enjoy.
Why is this important? Kids need to be connected to nature. People need to be connected to nature. Countless studies show the importance of green space to countering trauma and distress. We are fortunate to live in Homer, Alaska, with its incredible beauty. We are blessed to have green space surrounding us. Our trails, our parks and our gardens give us the connection to this green space, and today they are being utilized.
But these spaces do not just happen. A healthy percentage of our community trails have been built by volunteers, and are maintained by volunteers who simply care and are willing to convert that into a little sweat equity. These volunteers see the benefit of green space and want to make sure that at some level we all have access to these community treasures.
I am so appreciative and so humbled. Get out and get connected.
Deb Lowney is a longtime Homer resident, retired educator, artist and a Parks, Art, Recreation, and Culture Advisory Commissioner for the City of Homer.