Evan Barnard’s enthusiasm for nature began at a young age in the woods near his home. Now his passion for the outdoors has helped him become one of 15 recipients nationwide of the 2017 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, recognizing teens who strive to solve global issues within their communities through social change.
After repairing a vandalized Braille trail at a nature conservancy in Rome, Ga., Barnard, now 19 and a freshman ecology major at the University of Georgia, decided to create Nature for All, which pairs visually impaired youths with volunteers to share experiences in nature.
In addition to providing trails, the organization increases outdoor access for the visually impaired by promoting inclusivity. While Barnard, the son of Cathy and David Barnard of Johns Creek, is still involved in advocacy for the visually impaired, he also has created a separate website, Nature for the Blind, to link visually impaired people around the world with outdoor opportunities and educational programs.
The website has attracted users in more than 40 countries and 45 states the past six months, Barnard said. The site has been translated into 37 languages and features over 200 nature trails and sensory gardens in 35 countries on six continents.
Nature trails for the visually impaired emphasize sensory experiences and provide large-print signs, Barnard said. During his stint at the Rome nature conservancy, Barnard and volunteers restored a broken guide and replaced 15 aluminum Braille signs and a guide rope that assists visually impaired visitors along the trail.
“I’ve always grown up outdoors and never really understood what a privilege it is to enjoy nature until I visited the Braille trail in Rome,” said Barnard, who has worked with the Georgia Council for the Blind for eight years. “The visually impaired are so incredibly able despite their disability and really determined to make their voice known. They’ve been wonderful to work with, and I really admire them.”
After Barnard repaired the nature trail in Rome, he mended the Whispering Woods Braille Trail in Buford. Home Depot donated the 75 wooden posts, hardware and 18 Braille sign platforms, and volunteers from the company helped build and install the posts and platforms.
Barnard also reached out to members of the Georgia Council for the Blind for feedback, and the response was tremendous. He realized that people were less interested in the plants themselves than the scientific information behind them.
“They were so excited to come out to the trail, have that experience outdoors and learn about the world around them,” he said.
Although some visually impaired students attend summer camps to experience the outdoors, many do not have anything else outside, he said. “I think it’s really important to try to include disabled individuals in the process so they may be a part of the experience.”
Funded by the Helen Diller Family Foundation since 2007, the Teen Tikkun Olam Awards include a $36,000 prize for each winner and a celebratory luncheon in San Francisco on Aug. 28. Barnard plans to use the money for his education. He hopes to become a teacher or work for a nonprofit focused on environmental policy after college.
He has been involved in nature organizations since middle school, including the Chattahoochee Nature Center, where he served as a docent, the EarthEcho International youth leadership council, and the Georgia Climate Change Coalition board. He is implementing new policies within the United Nations.
“The award is a huge honor, but it is also a validation of the importance and potential of the work I do. It allows me to carry the tradition of tikkun olam, which started when I first visited the nature trail for my bar mitzvah project,” said Barnard, who attended Congregation Dor Tamid. “It’s important to me to help my community, and it is for that reason I selected my project to help people. I didn’t envision it to last this long but don’t plan on stopping any time soon. Building Braille trails helps connect the link between the visually impaired and the outdoors, and I am honored to be a part of that.”
(All photos take place on the Whispering Woods Braille Trail)
Anyone interested in nominating a teen to begin the 2018 application process should visit www.dillerteenawards.org.