Written by Evan Barnard, 21CL Youth Leadership Council, Johns Creek High School, Class of 2016
This past Sunday, April 17th, I led my fourth Global Youth Service Day project at the Whispering Woods Braille Trail. Established in 1988, Global Youth Service Day (GYSD) celebrates and mobilizes the millions of young people who improve their communities through service. GYSD is the largest service event in the world and the only one dedicated to the contributions that children and youth make 365 days of the year.
21st Century Leaders student volunteers worked with students from the STARS program at the Center for the Visually Impaired. First we all went for a trail walk, with students stopping at the various Braille sign stations and reading about the surrounding nature, enjoying sensory experience such as hugging a tree to feel its circumference, feeling tree bark, leaves and roots, and listening to singing birds and the breeze blowing through the trees. There are many different types of trees that line the trail, and they were able to compare the different bark textures, leaf shapes, and trunk formations as they read scientific information about the different species. Midway through the walk we stopped for cupcakes with three dimensional candy butterflies on top.
Students were given different aromatic herbs like chocolate mint, basil, pineapple sage and lemon thyme to smell and feel and identify, then we helped them plant several of their favorite herbs into container gardens to take home with them as a celebration of Earth Day. We then continued along the Braille trail, enjoying the remaining signs and experiences.
Together the visually impaired students and 21st Century Leaders shared a wonderful afternoon. The 21st Century Leaders who participated all did an amazing job working with the STARS students, and all want to find ways to do more with Global Youth Service Day.
Recently I was contacted to see if I could build another Braille trail at the Georgia Lions Camp for the Blind in Waycross, Georgia. I have already visited the trail twice and am in the process of raising funding and sourcing the materials like posts, rope, and possibly gravel to build the trail. I plan to write the Braille sign content this summer. This trail will be utilized by hundreds of visually impaired kids every summer, as well as adults and even visually impaired seniors. It is my hope that I can encourage other people to build Braille nature trails across the U.S. so more communities can have a Braille trail.
How much you touch the lives of others does not matter as much as much as your methods, so fill your life with meaning by following what you truly believe. Go volunteer and be both a leader and a model of service, raise awareness however possible, persist through the uneven patches of the path you choose to take, and never lose sight of the goal. Being a servant leader is a way of life that 21st Century Leaders continues to instill in all of us. Encourage collaboration with your peers and the community, and you never know what incredible things you can accomplish!
ABOUT THE WHISPERING WOODS BRAILLE TRAIL
I have always had a passion for nature and the outdoors. When I was twelve years old, I was interested in The Nature Conservancy (TNC). I volunteered to do trail maintenance work with TNC in Rome, Georgia on a trail called the Big Pine Braille Trail, the only nature trail in my state specifically designed to be accessible for the visually impaired. A Braille nature trail is a nature trail with guide ropes and Braille signs that the visually impaired can walk unassisted and enjoy the outdoors. When I got to the trail, all 15 Braille signs had been stolen. Determined to repair the vandalized trail, I helped replace the signs and cleaned up the trail. When I returned one year later, someone had stolen a large section of the guide rope, which I replaced and I once again fixed up the trail. Wanting to encourage more visually impaired people to use the trail, I became involved with the Georgia Council of the Blind (GCB).
When I went to my first Rome/Floyd County GCB chapter meeting, I was expecting to only give a short speech to encourage the members to use the Braille trail. However, I soon found myself in the company of some of the nicest and certainly most upbeat people I have ever gotten to know. Over the past five years, I have spoken at numerous GCB chapter meetings and a statewide conference, posted on an international Braille blog, led a trail walk for the visually impaired at the Big Pine Braille Trail, and built a second Braille Trail in Georgia, the Whispering Woods Braille Trail, to give more visually impaired access to the outdoors. The Whispering Woods Braille Trail was built completely by volunteers, including youth and adult, sighted and visually impaired, over two Global Youth Service Days (GYSDs) and many other work days. All materials were provided through in-kind donations or grants. The completed Whispering Woods Braille Trail was dedicated to GCB on March 15, 2015, followed by our first trail walk. Several weeks later we held out first trail walk for visually impaired youth for Global Youth Service Day 2015.
Since then I have been working to promote the Whispering Woods Braille Trail and also the importance of providing outdoor experiences for the visually impaired and others with disabilities. In addition to being interviewed on an American Federation of the Blind national radio show, I have met with Congressmen in Washington D.C. about the need for more Braille trails and increased funding for outdoor programs for those with disabilities.