By MADOLINE MARKHAM
Five years ago Verna Gates had a vision to get families in Alabama to hike together. What came of this small dream is thousands of people unlocking the key to explore the state and its natural beauty.
Today her grassroots organization, Fresh Air Family, runs more than 400 free activities a year, including 15 day camps as well as afterschool and home school programs. They partner with organizations in Homewood and thoughout Alabama to host outdoor educational programs.
“We are not a group geared toward hikers; we are geared toward families,” Gates said. “We make everything easy for you and your family by planning details. It’s a no worries way to get outdoors and do interesting things.”
Did you know Alabama’s Bear Creek is home to the Dismal Lights, a phenomena where insect larva glow in the dark that occurs here and in New Zealand? What about that you can visit Union Chapel Mine, a world-class fossil site in Jasper, to find fossils that predate dinosaurs? Or explore Tumbling Rock Cave, a space in Scottsboro that stays at 60 degrees year round? Fresh Air hosts excursions to all these places.
“Alabama is a miraculous place,” Gates said. “With its five geologic regions and one of the top five states in biodiversity, we take the beauty for granted.”
Many of their events include an education component led by expert naturologists or college professors, including Samford professors Ellen McLaughlin, Kristen Backagaurd, Larry Davenport and retired professor Mike Howell.
They also host events at Birmingham Botanical Gardens like a weekly Hikes for Tikes walk for toddlers. At Gross Out Camp at the gardens, older kids learn about creeks, snakes, bald eagles, and more. “It’s science, but we don’t tell the kids that,” Gates said. “We guarantee sending home dirty, tired children.”
“The great outdoors is a truly native habitat of children,” Gates said. “But they will never love what they never see, and more and more children are inside and don’t have creek beds to roam. We need to reverse this trend and get families to spend time together.”
Gates notes that research shows that children who do not spend time outside have low self-esteem. “Biology is learned outside playing in the creek finding salamanders,” she said. “It’s the beginnings of analytical thinking and basis for what you do later in life.“
Gates recalls life-changing story after story from participants in both the Over-the-Mountain area and inner city Birmingham. One hyperactive middle schooler had her medication go down 40 percent after going on Fresh Air excursions for several weekends. A young man is now pursuing a PhD. in plant science because he spent two hours on a Fresh Air field trip while attending Miles College.“Before I met Miss Verna, I didn’t know my destiny,” he tells people.
People of all ages are welcome to all events, and they host some singles-only events, like a float on the Cahaba River scheduled for June 18. “We’re all family in a bigger sense,” Waites said.
Get involved with Fresh Air Family in Homewood
On Sunday, June 19, Gates will host an evening walk along the Shades Creek Greenway. An expert in wildflowers, Gates will introduce the various wildflowers on the trail as well as talk about the ecosystem of Shades Creek and the importance of greenways in urban spaces. The hike will begin at the trailhead at Lakeshore and Green Springs at 6 p.m. Bring shoes you don’t mind getting wet and dirty, sunscreen, bug spray and water. The event is free, but they encourage registering online.
Every Thursday you can support Fresh Air Family’s free events by eating lunch or dinner at Nabeel’s Café, 1706 Oxmoor Road. Tell the cashier you are there for Fresh Air Family, and they will donate 10 percent of your bill.
For more information on Fresh Air Family events and to register, visit freshairfamily.com and find them on Facebook and Twitter.