Pathfinders was founded in 2006 by Cynthia Cole, who has lived in Hazard since 1993. Cole said she had been frustrated by the lack of walking and biking trails and called a meeting in 2006 that 15 people attended. From there the group formed, and its members have retained a commitment to nature and beautification projects. One of those projects include the International Peace Garden on North Main Street. Members have also worked to create and map local nature trails.
This latest effort, called Pathfinders Kids, was the brainchild of Jenny Williams, a Pathfinders member who spends her days teaching at HCTC.
“Pathfinders Kids was developed by Jenny Williams, who came up with the idea because she loves to hike, and she loves to work with kids,” said Cole.
A grant from the Community Foundation of Hazard and Perry County helped jumpstart the program, but support also came from elsewhere.
“With the kids program we have had support from several groups,” said Cole, especially noting their partnership with HCTC.
Williams said the group’s mission is to introduce kids to the outdoors, and not only for added benefits of physical activity, but also because the abundance of natural scenery in the region.
“You talk to kids from around here, and we are surrounded by all these great places to hike and all this beauty, and the kids are inside playing video games,” Williams said. “We might as well live in some inner city for all that they are experiencing nature.”
Just in the past week, Pathfinders members have taken several children on hikes every day, including to Kingdom Come State Park, Rock Bridge at Red River Gorge and Robinson Forest. On Thursday, the group hiked at Bad Branch Falls in Letcher County, and Thursday night they camped on Pine Mountain and hiked part of the Pine Mountain Trail on Friday.
“I feel so strongly and so passionately, and so does the whole Pathfinder organization, that it is so important to get out into the woods,” Williams added.
Williams said she hopes these children are able to learn in new ways and take what they have learned from these experiences back to the classroom.
“We really feel like the more these kids are outside the better they will be able to learn. There is a big body of research that supports that.” she said. “We are looking for these kids to show increased performance in the classroom when they get back to school in the fall.”
As a part of the program children are learning different wilderness skills such as leave-no-trace hiking techniques and visual water testing. Bella Dawhare is a 9-year-old enrolled in the program. She said she participated in all of the hikes and really enjoyed them.
“We have been hiking and learning about stuff … we have learned that some trees have been eaten by animals, and what is our state tree,” she said.
Nathan Cole, 6, said he liked going on the hikes because of the different experiences.
“We have gone to a cave and climbed the walls, and it was really fun because we did get to go up and look around,” he said. “I really liked Rock Bridge because there was even fish.”
Pathfinders members say they also want the children to love hiking and to want to take their families.
“Each child has a journal and pictures, and at the end of the week we will make sure each child has trail maps, so that they can take there families,” said Cole.
One family member who is especially appreciative of Pathfinders is Shirley Butler, who said she is excited that her sons, Devon and Jacob, have gotten to have these experiences.
“I am not physically able to do it,” she said, “and I wanted my boys to be able to go camping and they have loved it. This is something my boys would not have been able to have done with me, and this grant have really provided these kids with a unique camp, and getting dirty and filthy.”
There are 30 children enrolled in the Pathfinder Kids program, and for each day of hikes between 25 and 27 children participated. Most of the children participating in Pathfinders Kids are between the ages of third and sixth grade, although there are exceptions made.
Pathfinders also receive help from 17 teen mentors who act as guides and chaperones. They are mostly juniors and seniors in local high schools. All of the mentors hiked the trails the week before and are first aid and CPR certified.
Additional help for Pathfinders comes from Krystle Chipman, who works with Pathfinders and HCTC as an AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteering in Service to America) member. Chipman described her job as a support member to ensure the viability of the group for which she works.
“AmeriCorps VISTA partners you with a non profit in an undeserved community, and your job is to build the capacity of that non profit so they can sustain after you leave,” she explained.
Along with Chipman, the organization has James Thomason, who works for the Lets Move Outdoors program. The program is concerned with childhood obesity and creating physical activity programs for children.
Chipman and Williams started writing the grant that allowed for the creation of Pathfinders Kids in October. They were awarded the one year, $10,000 grant in December.
“I have been working very closely with Jenny (Williams) since it is a partnership between pathfinders and the college,” said Chipman.
The Pathfinders of Perry County have monthly hikes for kids through the Pathfinder Kids program as well as community hikes that are open to anyone. For more information on the Pathfinder Kids program or to contact the Pathfinders you can visit their website, www.pathperryky.org