Jean O’Connor-Snyder intern Ariel Jones considers the new meaning of “home” through the lens of serving the Jasper community as a remote intern.“Home” means something different to everyone. For some, “home” immediately sparks a picture image of a front porch swing, or children playing in a backyard. For others, “home” may be the names of family members, or the smell of fresh baked squash casserole. In the time of Covid-19, when many Alabamians are stuck in place, I find myself reflecting on “home,” the things that keep us there, the things that bring us back, and how the pandemic has affected my perception of the word itself.
As a civic engagement intern in the era of COVID-19, I work remotely “in” a community I can’t visit: Jasper, Alabama. Jasper is home for Jenny Brown Short. She grew up in Walker County, left for college, and traveled coast to coast across the United States for about 40 years before returning home to care for family. Short is now the Liveable Communities Chair for the Walker County Health Action Partnership (HAP). HAP and their partners have revamped waterway access points, built an accessible archery park, created nature trails, and work with birding and water activity groups regularly – to name a few projects.
While Covid-19 seemed to put much of day-to-day indoor life on standstill, outdoor recreation in Walker County has seen an enormous increase in participation. “We have tried not to let our momentum slow down as a result of the pandemic,” Short said of HAP Liveable Communities. “[We are] making sure that we encourage safe hygiene and of course the restrictions of social distancing. We encourage that at all of the recreational spaces.” Short said that the increase in use of outdoor recreational spaces is a positive byproduct of the pandemic. “It’s really easy to social distance when you’re on a bike, or when you’re in a kayak or canoe, or you’re fishing.” The accessibility of outdoor recreation and the excess time many individuals are experiencing has created the perfect formula for exploration of Walker County’s natural resources and quality family time.
The increase of outdoor recreation is not restricted to waterways and trails. Short is also the President of Jasper Mainstreet, and she has seen an increase in activity in downtown Jasper as well. Short mentioned Slow Spokes, a biking program organized by Mainstreet board member Gina Scruggs and her husband Carey. The program has experienced an increase in participation since the beginning of pandemic closures and lock downs. “The first [Slow Spokes] event that had been within the year, I think had 24 people. And we had about 113 [at the latest event],” Short said. They are also seeing groups come from other communities, such as Birmingham.
“We know that the outdoors create improvement in your mental, physical, emotional, spiritual health,” Short said. “We just think the timing, though awful as it is, the time is really good because at least we have some of those spaces available… Gina and her leaders have been very cognizant of the restrictions and making sure that people social distance.” Jasper Mainstreet has a fleet of bikes that they provide to the Slow Spokes program for those who don’t have their own.
The big question is if the increase in outdoor recreation will outlive Covid-19. Short seems hopeful. “In terms of fishing licenses, anecdotally, the numbers of people who are showing up at Walker County Lake, the numbers of people that we see on the waterways – I think [the increase in outdoor recreation] is changing the culture here. I really do,” Short said. HAP and their partners are working to introduce systems that will track just how many people are utilizing outdoor recreation areas.
The Health Action Partnership has officially been in Walker County since 2014. When HAP began creating outdoor recreation activities, Short said they started with a clean slate. “It started with the outlook of improving health, decreasing obesity, increasing physical activity,” she said. “We were 67th out of 67 counties in terms of health outcomes. We were dead last.” According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation 2020 County Health Rankings Report, Walker County now ranks 62nd in health outcomes. “What we didn’t know was, can you teach a community to learn to like kayaking? …Can you teach people to go to Walker County Lake and walk? Can you teach people to learn to love a platform to look at birds? And you can …That has been one of the most gratifying things about [building outdoor recreation],” Short shared.
In the foothills of Appalachia, Walker County is home to beautiful scenery and abundant natural resources. The work of Short and others has highlighted these resources in a way that even those who have been in the area for generations, like Short’s family, may have never realized. “I spent my whole childhood and teenagehood in Jasper, and yeah I did sports …[but] it never occurred to me to get in something out on our waterways,” Short said.
My perception of home is often stagnant: my favorite dish that is always at Thanksgiving and the annoying cousin who is also promised to be there. However, if the pandemic has taught me anything, it is that home is anything but stagnant and it reaches beyond the walls of a house. My home this summer is in Walker County, and yet I only spend about 25 hours a week there through a computer screen. What I have seen is people relying on one another, for food and other resources, but also for coping with the shared impact and experiences of Covid-19 in rural Alabama. The way that organizations like Health Action Partnership and individuals like Short have revitalized natural resources and outdoor recreation in Walker County is a testament to the community’s resiliency and passion for their home. Everyone I have worked alongside in Walker County has taught me that home is a place you should want to make better, while never erasing the spirit and character that calls you back.
Ariel Jones is a University of Alabama New College JOIP intern who remotely served the Jasper community this summer.