*This story first appeared in The Budget’s May 30, 2018, Local Edition.
By Stacey Carmany
After more than a year of planning and fundraising, Norma Johnson Center staff, board members and volunteers gathered earlier this month to unveil a new, wheelchair-accessible fishing dock on the center’s Preservation Pond and mark the completion of the first phase of a larger project to make the nature center more accessible to visitors with mobility limitations.
“We have people who like to fish that are in wheelchairs,” Starlight Enterprises CEO Cassie Elvin said following a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new fishing dock. “They’ve done such a nice job, and they can just go and set the pole and everything. It’s just great.”
The construction of the dock was funded in part with a $3,757 Aquatic Education Grant from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources that was earmarked for providing outdoor educational opportunities for individuals with special needs.
Monetary donations from area foundations and the proceeds from last year’s chicken barbecue and plant sale contributed the more than $6,000 needed to complete the first phase of the project, which also included the installation of wheelchair ramps at the historic red barn, restrooms and picnic shelter.
During the ceremony, Tuscarawas County Commissioner and NJC board member Chris Abbuhl thanked those whose generosity helped make the vision into a reality. “We have so many people we could thank, but it wouldn’t be possible without this list of names right over there that have helped support this project,” Abbuhl said, pointing to the three-page list of donors posted at the new fishing dock.
Marsha Freeland also credited former staffer and AmeriCorps member Gabriel Riggle for his role in spearheading the dock project, which would ultimately serve as a catalyst for the larger effort to improve accessibility at the nature center. “Last year, we had an AmeriCorps member that the commissioners helped pay for,” she shared. “He found that there was money available for a fishing dock, and that’s kind of how it started.”
To ensure that the new dock was designed with the specific needs of visitors with mobility limitations in mind, the NJC team worked closely during the planning process with representatives from Starlight and other agencies serving individuals with disabilities.
“I came out with some individuals and kind of talked with their engineer, their environmental person that was looking at the plans and things,” Elvin shared. “They did a nice job of listening to what we said as far as the barriers and making sure that if somebody’s in a wheelchair, the grade’s not too steep, and having protection on the sides so somebody doesn’t get into the water and things like that.”
While the new dock may be wheelchair-friendly, the route to get there from the Preservation Loop parking lot is not, which is why organizers are now expediting Phase 2 of the nature center’s accessibility plan. “The goal is to have an accessible trail that will be easy for pushing a stroller or a wheelchair to go up it,” Freeland explained.
To date, $10,400 has been raised for the construction of the trail. Organizers are currently awaiting finalized plans from the designer to determine whether any additional funding will be needed.
Once the trail has been completed, the focus will then be shifted to the Conservation side of the nature center, which has been targeted for the third phase of improvements under the accessibility plan.
Phase 3 improvements include the development of a wheelchair and stroller accessible trail connecting the picnic shelter and Conservation Pond as well as a boardwalk over the emergency spillway that will provide access to an additional trail.
A wheelchair-accessible fishing deck is also being planned for Conservation Pond as part of the third phase of the project. It will be constructed by local scout Kasey Rowland for his Eagle Scout service project. “We’re trying to find an engineer to design that for us,” Freeland shared.
A fourth phase calls for the development of an accessible trail connecting the two ponds.
“There’s many more projects that we plan on doing,” Abbuhl said. “This is a great place for people to come and enjoy and for the families, and now we have some accessibilities for [people with] handicaps, and we’re very excited about that.”
Anyone who would like to support the center’s accessibility plan by making a donation can do so online by visiting normajohnsoncenter.com/get-involved.
Donations can also be dropped off at the center’s office at 85 East Iron Avenue in Dover from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday – Friday or mailed to PO Box 1185, New Philadelphia, OH 44663. Checks should be made payable to the Norma Johnson Center with “Accessibility Project” in the memo line.