A request for help was all it took for a regional hiking association to develop a relationship with students at one of the smallest schools in the state.
That and the possibility of putting their community on the map and spending time outside instead of in a classroom has now helped foster an even deeper relationship.
The Knobstone Hiking Trail Association is a nonprofit organization whose members are dedicated to the completion, preservation and promotion of the Knobstone Hiking Trail, which begins in Clark County and heads northwest toward Martinsville. The association was formed in 2013 to be a steward of the trail, which is not 100 percent complete.
Medora Community School Corp. is located five miles away from the trail where it runs through the western part of Jackson County.
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When Suzanne Mittenthal, a board member of the association, approached Medora social studies and history teacher Pat Bahan to round up a group of students to assist with the trail project, he enthusiastically accepted.
“This is a godsend,” said Bahan, who was in the process of creating a school service project for his students, especially the seniors.
Mittenthal is the association’s project leader for work at the Jackson County Park at Sparksville, which serves as a trailside park with a camping area, water and a picnic area.
She told the Medora students the association needed to build a footbridge to help extend the trail north.
One of the major motivations behind getting the school involved was developing local support for completing the trail in Jackson County, Mittenthal said.
“It’s a common practice for long-distance trails to involve trailside schools in partnerships,” she said. “It can be win-win, with the trail gaining support while students become aware of and involved in projects that connect them to the wider world.”
A couple of months ago, Christy Sener Townsend, an English teacher at Medora, accompanied Bahan to take the current senior class to the park at Sparksville to work on the project.
“I got involved because Mr. Bahan knows that I have a background in community service groups and that this kind of project would be right up my alley,” Sener Townsend said. “We took the seniors, who total about 19, to the project on a Friday, and about two-thirds of the group was able to stay all day. The other third of the students needed to go to their jobs after lunch.”
The three tasks of the class were to build the 16-foot footbridge at the edge of Sparksville, clear a quarter-mile of trail and erect a commemorative bench.
It took about an hour for four of the students to assemble the bench right after the group’s arrival to the park. An additional group of students worked with three professionals to build the bridge, which spans a 6-foot-deep ravine.
“It took them all day, but the bridge was nearly completed when we had to leave,” Sener Townsend said. “Mr. Bahan spent the day with the trail clearing, and I cleared trail in the morning and assisted with the bridge in the afternoon.”
The trail work, including weeding and mud scraping, proved to be a tedious but important task for the young volunteers. Weeds and briers had made the trail impassable for park users, so the students clearly made a valuable contribution.
For the occasion, a new version of the association’s T-shirt trail map was produced, with Sparksville and Medora Community Schools added along the trail. Shirts were presented to each member of the senior class.
“The students had a high-quality learning experience, gained a high sense of pride in accomplishment and overall did something very good for their community,” Bahan said. “It was particularly useful to me in developing a service-learning project framework for Medora High School.”
Bahan is optimistic the partnership with the association can develop into an expanded program that will eventually include all of Medora Community Schools, perhaps even the upper elementary, too.
“After the project, both Mr. Bahan and I gave the students an opportunity to write a reflection on their participation in lieu of a more traditional trimester final, which most of the students chose to do,” Sener Townsend said. “The reactions from the students were interesting.”
A good majority talked about what they had learned about themselves, including that they were stronger than they realized, and most of them said they’d do a project like this again, Sener Townsend said.
One student wrote, “One of the coolest parts of this project was being able to say, I helped build a bridge.’ Another cool part was we were finally on the map. Most people don’t know where Medora is … getting on the map is awesome. Also, it shows how beautiful our town is. The woods and creeks are just gorgeous.”
Another student “found out she was lazy and wasn’t strong enough to use an axe.” Still, she still claimed she had “learned she could work just as hard as the guys in my class.”
One spoke for many, “It wasn’t fun, and I was sore and tired, but overall, it was cool.”
Many were not used to the physical work and “wondered if they could do it and hated it at first.”
Of course, many “really enjoyed being outside, not cooped up inside all day.”
No one had ever heard of the association, with one student saying, “A statewide trail a few minutes from my house … I can’t wait until they are completely finished with it so I can go and see how cool it is. It’s neat to think that one day, you can tell your kids and grandkids that you helped forge a trail that will last for years and years.”
Some spoke of the “good feeling about yourself when you help people in your community,” and many noted “how much can be done if people work together.”
Most of the students had never done any kind of community service before, and a good percentage of them had never done any kind of outdoor labor before, so it was interesting for Sener Townsend and Bahan to see their reactions.
“Overall, I think the students really got a lot out of the experience, even the ones who didn’t really enjoy it,” Sener Townsend said. “I think there was a large sense of accomplishment that many of them felt at the end.”
Bahan said the Medora juniors had wanted to join the seniors on their community service day, Oct. 28, but will instead be involved in a project with the Knobstone Hiking Trail Association in the spring.
“We’re planning projects for next spring,” Mittenthal said. “Turns out the lower wetland pond footpath needs some real work. Eighty feet of old waterlogged boardwalks need replacing. Nearby, easement trail building awaits. Maintenance on the nearby (Knobstone Hiking Trail) will be necessary as long as the trail endures.”
Mittenthal applied for a grant on behalf of the association for the cost of the new project, which requires specially treated ground contact lumber, metal upright posts and galvanized carriage bolts for the boardwalk, totaling $457.74.
The Community Foundation of Jackson County has a special fund for small projects that come up outside of the lengthy annual application process.
After receiving Mittentahl’s request, Dan Davis, the foundation’s president and CEO, granted the request.
“The trail in Sparksville is on easements, priceless private land sections donated by generous local citizens, such as John Howard,” Mittenthal said. “Only one more will allow the trail to be off the road going north from Sparksville for many miles.”
Through Sener Townsend’s prior service work, she has seen the community pride and ownership that projects like this can inspire in young people and is hopeful this kind of project will help propel those feelings in Medora.
“We are tentatively planning to take another group (the juniors this time) to the project in the springtime,” Sener Townsend said. “I’m hoping that we will be able to have community service become a regular part of our students’ lives.”
For information about the Knobstone Hiking Trail and the Knobstone Hiking Trail Association, visit knobstonehikingtrail.org.
The Knobstone Hiking Trail is a 150-mile trail along the landmark Knobstone escarpment in one of the most rugged and scenic areas of the south central Midwest, on the high bluffs of the forested corridor between Indianapolis and Louisville, Kentucky.
Two completed sections, Tecumseh (north, 42 miles) and Knobstone (south, 45 miles) soon will be extended another 28-plus miles.
The trail is ideal for day hikes and backpack camping. No fees, reservations or permits are required. Shuttles are available to connect Pioneer (central) trail miles and for one-way hikes of sections.
The Knobstone Hiking Trail Association was formed in 2013 to become the steward of the trail. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to completion, preservation and promotion of the Knobstone Hiking Trail. They depend on association members and volunteers for its continuation. Only a part of the trail is on public land maintained by government agencies. Trail conditions are dependent on hiker reports and volunteer action in response to them. The association is the only source for maps and information about the entire trail.