Tullahoma Story Book Trail encourages reading, exercise

By KATE COIL

The Tullahoma Parks and Recreation Department has partnered with its local library branch, UT extension office, and other local partners to create a unique experience that encourages families to both read together and spend time outdoors.
The Rock Creek Story Book Trail has been created on a segment along the city’s Rock Creek Greenway near the Coffee County Lannom Memorial Public Library. The project was financed through a $5,000 Well Connected Communities grant through the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation via the 4-H Council and University of Tennessee’s Cooperative Extension System.
Belinda Letto, an extension agent with the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s office in Coffee County, said the trail includes a series of 25 podiums that have been erected along the greenway near the library, each of which contains a reading station.
These reading stations have a page from a book encased in glass, allowing visitors to read one page of the story as they walk the trail. To complete the story, visitors must travel the greenway between all 25 stations, each placed about 30 yards apart. The trail already has its own library of 25 books that will be changed out approximately every two weeks.
“Our goal is to get the same people coming,” Letto said. “Though we know children don’t mind reading the same book over and over, we want to encourage them to come back, to continue to walk and read. The overall mission is to build a culture of health within our community. A part of the program is the educational component.”
Letto said the concept of a walking trail based around stories was an idea she had seen presented at a conference.
“The Story Walk was trademarked, and it was developed in Vermont by a lady named Sarah Ferguson, who worked with a local library system,” she said. “I thought it was a cool idea because it was interactive and multi-generational. It promotes literacy skills and gives health benefits of being out in outdoor greenspaces. It really has multifaceted benefits for families.”
Tullahoma was open to the idea of the trail and had a great location for it in mind.
“Mayor Lane Curlee has this overall mission to make opportunities for physical activity to be located within half a mile of every home or household in Tullahoma,” Letto said. “In talking with our community partners, like the Tullahoma Department of Parks and Recreation, it was suggested we do the project on the new greenway expansion that just happened to be behind the library. It was a perfect location, and the Lannom Memorial Public Library is really involved in reaching out to the community and providing resources to children from economically disadvantage homes. It was a perfect marriage.”
The project soon had the support of other local partnerships from groups like Get Fit Tullahoma and the extension office’s master gardener program, who offered to do the landscaping. Members of a local woodworkers association volunteered to build the platforms and displays for the walk. Tullahoma’s Literacy Council has also volunteered time to help mount and laminate the pages for display. A local Boy Scout will be working on an Eagle Scout Project to develop an outdoor classroom for the library connected to the Story Trail.
“All these people had the connections and the skills to plan, design, and construct the boards for the story walk where we display the book pages,” Letto said. “The library was an excellent resource for helping us select the books, knowing what would be appropriate and how to reach children who are your early readers up until about second-grade. It’s one of those projects that as it gets more attention it has continued to draw.”
The library has also seen the potential for programming in the trail.
“We are having an official opening on May 24 to pair it with the library’s summer reading program’s kick-off,” Letto said. “We have books on the trail now, but right now we are testing to make sure everything works. To get an idea of the number of people using the Story Trail, we have decided to do an incentive program with the library. The library’s mascot, a small dragon, is going to be located along the trail on one of the story book pages. The children then go into the library to tell them what post the dragon was on so they can get a small charm or treat. They can collect a new one for each book on the trail. It lets us know how many people are utilizing the trail and gives the kids an incentive to keep coming back.”
The library has also wanted to incorporate books on the trail into their enrichment program and hold polls where visitors can vote for their favorite books along the trail so that officials can determine what types of books trail walkers are most interested in seeing.
So far, the feedback from the program has been overwhelming positive.
“The literacy council is extremely excited by this and wants to support it moving forward,” she said. “When the newspaper did an article, we started getting a lot of response from people that they wanted to go and walk it. I have yet to get any kind of negative feedback. What surprised me is how excited a lot of grandparents were about it as a place to take their grandchildren.”
Letto said the project has also strengthened the bonds of various community partners in the area.
“It’s been fabulous; I’ve worked in a lot of groups, and we are really blessed to have a lot of people who focus on the vision and the mission rather than getting into turf wars,” Letto said. “For me to be successful in my job and reach the people I need to reach in the community is through community collaboration. Everyone brought their talents to the table and were willing to share, do, and be flexible. Everyone kept a positive attitude, and everyone kept moving forward.”