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Posted: December 12, 2010 12:00 a.m.

Chimney Park about community

It was the coldest night of the year. Even long johns and layers weren’t enough to protect against the frigid temperatures, and when the wind blew, you couldn’t help but pine for an electric blanket and the comforts of home. Failing that, there was always a place at the roaring bonfire where you could roast marshmallows for s’mores. The woods sparkled with thousands of lights and unique features: a line-up of hula hoops and bicycles outlined in chase lights, a grove of plum trees hung with shimmering globes, a small forest of white-painted saplings strung with all white lights, 40-foot high lengths of running lights hung from tall trees, snowflakes dancing in the wind, a towering handmade Nutcracker, a grand Christmas tree and a lighted church steeple guarded by a glowing angel. Carolers brought the meaning of the season home, and a green-hooded storyteller enthralled little listeners in an amphitheater created with stumps. Hot cider, grilled hotdogs and fresh popcorn warmed tiny fingers. This was Chimney Park last Sunday at the third annual "Twilights" festival.

Chimney Park’s woods surround the remains of a fine home behind the Newton County Library. The two-story chimney was hung with a wreath; a table set with a candelabra was on view inside the foundation as if awaiting holiday guests, and through a hand-made window installed for the occasion, a merrily decorated fresh Christmas tree shivered in the wind.

Board members of Friends of Newton Parks, the sponsoring organization, and numerous selfless "elves" began getting the woods ready for visitors the last weekend in October. Civic organizations and businesses volunteered their time, talents and resources.

Chimney Park is all about community, as well as the shared experience of preserving natural habitat, conservation and preservation. It’s also about building appreciation for and understanding of the role of outdoor experience in supporting mental and physical health. Research substantiates the need for kids in particular to connect with Mother Nature at play in the out-of-doors. But we knew that, didn’t we? Our moms would shoo us out in the morning and tell us not to come home until suppertime. These days, that’s not so for many reasons. We’re overdeveloped, urbanized and sedentary.

The magic of the outdoors that has been lost to many still lives at Chimney Park. The woods tower above and surround you. Paths open to new dimensions in the landscape. Catch a glimpse of a hawk, an owl, a deer. Listen for a birdcall.

But if you’re in a wheelchair, on crutches or a walker, the logistics of even getting into the park to enjoy the magic are almost insurmountable. The real genesis of Chimney Park came from the realization that special needs children and adults are too often denied the opportunity to experience outdoor activities because their requirements for mobility and access haven’t been considered adequately. Just ask Mike and Kelli Hopkins. The dream of the park dreamers was to include features that would enable the less able to enjoy what we take for granted.

That’s why votes by Covington City Council and the county commission earlier this week are hard to swallow. County Special Projects Director Cheryl Delk went before both bodies seeking approval to apply for a major federal transportation grant available only every two years — $800,000 — that would have completed the portion of the county-wide trail from Chimney Park to East Side High School. The grant would also have provided amenities like bike racks, ramps and bridges plus extras at Chimney Park, the trailhead, to encourage handicap accessibility. To make the application, the city and the county would have to commit $51,000 each on top of what has already been set aside. City Manager Steve Horton told council that committing $51,000 to leverage $800,000 was quite a deal. Still the council voted down not only this grant application but even a smaller one for $400,000 to finish to minimal standards what’s already under construction. At least, the county commission voted 3-2 to seek the smaller grant, but it will mean nothing to people with handicaps who would like to be able to park and enter the trail at Chimney Park.

Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.

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