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A child poses for a photo at Ijams Nature Center

Into the Woods

TVA Grants Connect People with Nature and History

Joseph Sosa, 8, settled onto the stone pavilion wall with his chattering group. He looked around at the field, the pond, the bronze-tinged fall leaves and the blazing blue sky.

He had plenty to take in on his first trip to Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“I love being outside because there are a lot of things you can do, like look at birds,” Joseph said. “I love jumping in piles of leaves. I love to lay under the trees. I’ve got this tree at my house and sometimes at night we capture light bugs. But we don’t ever come out here.”

Joseph and his friends were from eight Knoxville schools as part of a field trip with the Haslam Family Club University and Norwood Elementary Boys & Girls Clubs.

They visited Ijams Nature Center thanks to one of several Tennessee Valley Authority Recreation and Environmental Justice grants.

“It’s important to our mission that we ensure all people have access to and benefit from the natural resources of our region,” Suzanne Fisher, program manager for TVA Natural Resources, which awards the grants, said.

“Exposing people from all backgrounds to the great outdoors not only creates positive outcomes for them but also helps build a future generation of environmental stewards.”

In Full Swing

TVA Natural Resource grants have also helped link people to their cultural heritage by covering transportation needs when Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program participants visited Sumter National Forest in South Carolina.  

In a partnership with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, guests in that program learned about cultural artifacts and river cane, a plant vital to Cherokee culture.

Linking people to their cultural heritage is also at the core of the Native Plant Partnership between Tribes and TVA, Marianne Shuler, TVA archaeologist and Tribal liaison, said.

TVA grants also funded an Overton Park Conservancy program in Memphis and a Howard School Leadership program at Lookout Mountain Conservancy in Chattanooga. And they helped kids bond on a Bridge Chattanooga program.

Each TVA grant makes a joyful day outside possible for people who otherwise may not experience these adventures.

“We’re out here to educate our kiddos on ecology and supporting natural ecosystems,” Chara Carey, Boys & Girls Club healthy lifestyles program specialist, said about the day at Ijams. “This day is to give kids hands-on experiences and to get those thought processes going about nature.”

At Ijams, those thought processes were in full swing.

As the group settled in, their discoveries began.

One girl found a perfect pebble of pink quartz. Two boys pointed to lines of mud dauber tubes along the rafters.

“I think we’ll see lots of good things today, because it’s a nature center,” Joseph said. “I might even see some turtles.”

The turtles didn’t disappoint. The kids spotted one almost immediately in the Ijams pond.

“Ra-pha-el! Ra-pha-el!” the crowd of kids chanted, naming the paddling animal after a Ninja Turtle. They leaned over the water as the turtle sidled closer, curious about the kids.

“But what if it’s a girl turtle?” a voice piped up.

“Raphael’s girlfriend,” one girl said.

The turtle, with amber-yellow eyes, was indeed a female. That settled the issue.

“I knew we’d see a turtle there,” Joseph said, satisfied as the group filed across the stone bridge to begin their hike.

The 25 elementary schoolers walked down the greenway, next to the marble quarry, then into the Naturespace play loop.

Along the way, fifth-graders A'Shiya Roberson, Livi Berlin and Jadiel Garcia-Allen pointed to the Navitat ziplines and platforms high in the trees. They wondered aloud if they would brave the heights.

They found three sycamore seed pods on the ground, laughing as they tugged hard enough to release a cloud of tan seed fluff. For the rest of the hike, A’Shiya cupped the seeds in her palm.

On the nature trail, kids flocked to the human-sized bird nest woven onto a platform. They crawled through the tunnel and made their best funny faces as they peeked up at their playmates.

“I like nature,” said Athena Ward, a third-grader who previously visited Ijams with her mom.

She picked up a pinecone-covered branch and mused with her friends about what it would be like to be an animal that ate them. The conversation turned to pumpkin pie and tacos and, just like that, the group returned to the bus, ready for lunch.

The Bigger Picture

Ijams is only 5 miles from the Boys & Girls Club building, but the distance to the preserved area can be an unsurmountable barrier.

“Without TVA, it wouldn’t be as easily affordable to provide transportation,” Carey said. “They’re also providing meals. It just helps encourage our kids to live those active lives and be more mindful.”

TVA’s Fisher echoed the sentiment.

“I just want people to know that it’s not too late to pick up a recreational hobby that they may have been uncomfortable or unaware of doing, but want to try,” she said.

And TVA has been making these days of exploration possible for a long time.

“I’ve been here 11 years and I’ve been hearing the TVA name forever,” Sean Lamb, Haslam Family Club University’s director, said. “They’re one of the main partners.

“TVA is always good about doing different stuff. And that’s great, because not everyone has $15 or $20 for a field trip. We set that aside for kids who can’t afford field trips.”

The programs help foster greater appreciation of natural resources – and help kids see themselves as capable adventurers.

“We’re really thankful to get these kiddos into Ijams,” Carey said. “A lot of our clubs have asked for these opportunities to get into nature and do this outdoor education.”

For the students, it shapes a lifelong love of the outdoors.

“When I’m grown up, this is where I’m going to come,” Jadiel said as he walked through the forest, eyes scanning the treetops. “I’m going to bring my kids here.”

“Why would you do that?” A’Shiya asked.

“The leaves, the breeze. The open air,” Jadiel said, nodding to himself. “It’s so fun.” 

Photo Gallery

A group of children from Knoxville-area schools gather around the edge of a pond at Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee

A child plays in a wood structure at Ijams Nature Center

A girl holds seed pods in her hand while hiking through Ijams Nature Center

A child holds up an acorn he found while hiking at Ijams Nature Center

A group of children stand at the entrance to the Nature Playscape at Ijams Nature Center

A girl investigates a palmful of seed pods while hiking

A child runs as she exits a school bus at Ijams Nature Center

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Visit the TVA Kids Protecting the Environment page to learn about TVA’s work in environmental stewardship and more.

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