The impact of trails, the impact of a fellow

The impact of trails, the impact of a fellow

Tree Amigos!

One year as a fellow. I’ve researched, studied, data-crunched, and presented. I’ve walked, biked, paddled, and hiked. I’ve mapped, plant-IDed, chopped, and chain-sawed. I’ve spent an excellent year of analyzing, promoting, and stewarding the land and trails that my two organizations protect and build. I have gained many skills and have many stories to tell. In thinking about how to sum up my year in a blog post, I came back to the title of the program. The Davidson Impact Fellowship.

The purpose of the Davidson Impact Fellowship program is to provide hands-on experience in non-profit work, giving the fellow an opportunity to shape the community in which they work and make a meaningful contribution towards tackling challenging and critical community issues. I spent a year with the Catawba Lands Conservancy and the Carolina Thread Trail. They serve as land stewards and trail builders in the Southern Piedmont covering 15 counties in North and South Carolina. While many people can understand and accept the environmental, health, and recreational benefits of the protected land and trails, few fully realize the extent to which both are an economic driver for communities and regions. My primary role this year was to help tell this economic impact story.

I could tell within the first few days of getting to know my organizations, networking with others in the trail community, and researching trail impact studies from across the country, that this was a highly prioritized project across the field. Trail advocates have long sought after concrete, quantitative evidence of economic benefits to pair with the numerous qualitative data and anecdotal stories. I spent 12 months working towards this goal and the more I delved into the project, the more I could tell that my efforts would be truly valuable. It was both challenging and rewarding to create ways to tangibly demonstrate this connection between trails and economic benefits. It required creativity, persistence, and focus on details while working towards a big picture goal.

The impact of trails, the impact of a fellow

Catawba Springs

It has been really satisfying at the end of my time to see it all come together and the numerous ways in which my fellowship has been impactful. Most directly, I can see that the meaningful results and products coming from my work will be central to future funding initiatives for my organizations and others. My efforts have greatly contributed to a more complete story of the benefits of trails and greenways. In another light, my role this year has built a partnership between the fellowship program and my organizations, who will be continuing to work with a DIF fellow this coming year and hopefully in the future as well.

The impact of trails, the impact of a fellow

Cottonwood Goat Island

Finally, I see that this program–this opportunity– has had an impact on me and my career development. Throughout the year, I was able to work on a variety of projects in several different roles, refine my skills and learn new ones while simultaneously gaining a better understanding of how I want to develop my career. Overall, this past year has given me a better understanding of the struggle non-profits face in achieving their goals and well as the important role they play as a community partner.

Learning to Listen as a Leader

Kouzes and Posner in The Jossey Bass Reader on Nonprofit and Public Leadership describe the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership. This fellowship has given me the opportunity to be around many leaders. Here at the Carolina Thread Trail and the Catawba Lands Conservancy, I work closely with Tom Okel, the Executive Director. I see him interact with many other leaders and people of influence in the government, the private sector, and in corporations. Of these five practices, there is one that stands out in my mind as one that is the most crucial and yet underutilized by many people with whom we interact. This practice is the ability to listen. To truly listen and to listen well.

When our organization goes to donors, foundations, grant committees, government officials, corporate partners, and volunteers, it is essential for us to hear what they are saying and understand their point of view. If a donor cares about contributing for reason X, we don’t want to waste all our time and efforts explaining to him or her the benefits of supporting us for reason Y. If townspeople in a rural county don’t support the growth of the trail in their area, we need to be able to understand their concerns so we can properly demonstrate our cause in a way that addresses those specific problems. The power of listening can demonstrate so many things.

I’ve been impressed by Tom’s ability to listen and process what other people say and I have been equally as surprised at the inability of other I’ve run across to apply this skill. I see Tom solve a problem faster by understanding the underlying issues and also demonstrate that the organization truly cares about the opinions of parties we work with. As a non-profit, we are so dependent on community engagement and support from all the sectors we work with it is no wonder this tool can be such a game-changer.


Swimming in Trash

Swimming in Trash

Day 2 Trash Crew celebrates their effort

Crunch, crunch, crunch. I walked from the trails’ edge to the shoreline—about 10 feet. The crunching wasn’t leaves fallen from the trees, it was trash. Every step was the crunch of trash. Seven Oaks Trail was an incredible graveyard of trash.

On the edge of the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, we’ve been working to complete the Seven Oaks Trail, a 2.8 mile segment that is part of a 5 mile connector loop. This is a beautiful trail with a diversity of flora and fauna as well as extensive portions along the shore of Lake Wylie. However due to its location and the recent flooding this past summer, Seven Oaks has experienced an unfortunate problem. An incredible trash problem.

When there is massive flooding in a region, all of the trash is collected by the floodwater and sent into the creeks and streams due to insufficiencies in our storm water management systems. The trash makes its way into our lakes and rivers. Floodplain shorelines then quickly convert in trash depositories. When the waters finally go down, we can see the results along these shores and the result of our society’s waste production. Thousands and thousands of bottles; hundreds and hundreds of cans, balls, toys, shoes, tires, cigarettes, lighters, spray cans, treated wood, and Styrofoam. That’s what covered the shores of Seven Oaks Trail a few weeks ago.

Prior to our trash pickup, this property was annexed by the City of Belmont. I’d like to give a shout out to the City of Belmont because it is efforts like theirs that inspire our mission, build partnerships for better communities, and show the power of working together. Folks from the City of Belmont called us up to welcome the CTT to Belmont and informed us that they’d love to help. Belmont offered a huge dump truck and recycling services. Something we wouldn’t have been able to contract without them. Thanks to Belmont, we were able to coordinate a huge effort to collect trash and recycling on our new trail in time for the opening on December 6th.

The Carolina Thread Trail has a lot of work days with staff, volunteers, and corporate partners. A few weeks ago, the Carolina Thread Trail worked over two days with staff and volunteers to get this trail ready for use. In the freezing cold, dedicated volunteers came and help us pick up the gross, seemingly endless amount of trash along the shore. By the end, we had collected 136 bags of recycling, 62 bags of trash, 32 old tires, and 32 bags of pre-collected trash along the road by City of Belmont Public Works Crew. In total, the clean-up weighed in at 1,385 lbs. or approximately ¾ a ton of trash and debris.

What an impact.

The Most Powerful Thing So Far…

By Cakey Worthington ’13The Most Powerful Thing So Far…

It is crazy to think that I am already two months into my year as a fellow and two months into my first job. It’s big; it’s exciting; and it’s going by so fast. Through the generous funding of the Davidson Impact Fellows program, I am a research fellow at the Carolina Thread Trail under the organizational umbrella of the Catawba Lands Conservancy. I live a comfortable 20 minutes from Davidson in downtown Charlotte, a wonderful city many students never get to explore.

The Carolina Thread Trail is a non-profit trail project connecting communities through greenways, blueways, trails, and sidewalk-connector paths. The organization currently has over 120 miles of developed trail with many more adopted connector paths and will eventually develop into a 1,500 mile trail network across 15 counties in North and South Carolina.

My primary goal in this position is to determine the economic impact of the Carolina Thread Trail across the region, although I intend to work on a diversity of projects in the office with the Catawba Lands Conservancy as well. So far, I have innovated and will soon launch several survey studies with local business owners, trails users, and realtors, in order to begin to piece together the economic impact story. All of the people I have talked to in my short time here have been enthusiastic and energetic about this economic impact initiative.

I have met with government officials, non-profit leaders, and trail users and supporters throughout my eight weeks so far. It is in meeting all of these people that I have determined what the most powerful thing about this fellowship is. This “Davidson Impact Fellowship” is what its name implies; it is truly an impactful thing I am doing here. Right out of the starting gate, it was clear to me that everyone I talked to was excited and motivated by the work I would be doing. The economic impact story of these trails will become a tool for all of these people, a tool to fortify what to some is obvious: that trails are good for the community, the environment, and the economy. Trails and greenways are a triple-win; but in a time of reduced government spending, funding is harder to come by for continued development of this project.

I know how helpful my work will be, and that is my favorite part of this job. In many ways, it has been both intimidating and motivating. After the tremendous responses from all the people I’ve met, I felt a bit of pressure make sure my end products are truly useful. It is that realization that I may have a real impact that encourages me to work hard. When I think about what I want to accomplish, I remember that I only get one year to make it all happen. I’m already two months in and time is certainly flying. Luckily, I feel that I have a good handle on my vision for these projects and how to work within the year-long timeline. Additionally, I am given hearty encouragement and sound advice from my program mentors: my boss, Executive Director of the Catawba Lands Conservancy, Tom Okel, and the Davidson Alumni Director, Marya Howell. It is with the help of these sage guiding individuals that I have been so successful already.

As I delve into the heart of my work here, I hope to be thinking and acting deliberately so that each thing I do here, no matter how small, can contribute to the greater impact I have both on this organization and in the Thread Trail’s footprint as a whole.