Inmates pay it forward, construct classroom at Jacob’s Park

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The drills and power saws droning in the background at Jacob’s Nature Park this week were music to Johnson City Parks and Recreation Naturalist Connie Deegan’s ears.

Deegan uses the 28-acre park just east of Mountain View Elementary – a combination of lush wetlands and wooded hillside bisected by Sinking Creek – to conduct a wide variety of nature programs. She’s lacked a spacious, central teaching point protected from rain. “I had a tracking program here two weekends ago and I had to back my truck up to the one bench in the parking lot and try to provide enough seating for people on that one bench and my tailgate,” Deegan said.

That’s all about to change thanks to a group of inmates from Northeast Correctional Complex’s Carter County annex. The men are building an outdoor classroom, complete with a “living roof” planted with native species, at the park’s Ocala Drive entrance. (The main parking lot is at 1220 King Springs Road.)

Up to now, Deegan has brought groups out on the park’s single-track trails to study birds, reptiles, trees, flowers and more. It’s not the most conducive learning environment, but the new classroom will allow up to 60 or 80 students to pack in, learn about a topic, then trek out into the park to see it firsthand.

Johnson City Parks and Recreation Naturalist Connie Deegan teaches a group in the wetlands at Jacob’s Nature Park.

“There’s so much to talk about in this park,” Deegan said. “We can have a program and then walk on the trail. I can start, give descriptions and then when they see it, they’ll know what it is because we’ve already talked about it.”

As about 10 men worked busily behind him, corrections officer Brian Dyer explained the community work program benefits both inmates and the schools, communities and parks that receive free labor. Weather permitting, Dyer said, the work on this project could be done by year’s end.

A TDOC inmate cuts lumber for the outdoor classroom being constructed at Jacob’s Park.

“The goal … is to teach these inmates and give them a trade, and maybe to keep them out of the prison and make a good honest living,” Dyer said. “The goal for this project is to make sure all of the work is complete and done timely, and to try and get the project up and running for the public so they can enjoy it as much as we enjoy working on it.”

Another group of inmates built a wheelchair accessible bridge in 2016, which Deegan said greatly impacted usage. “They put that together so that people can get up over the stream, where the only access had been a dead log and a six-by-six post with a rope handhold,” Deegan said. “They’re a really talented staff.”

“On the road side of the park is about five acres,” she said. “On the other side is about 23. So it enables me to have loop trails so I can cross the stream. It’s opened the park up.”

A large sign at the park’s King Springs Road entrance tells Jacob’s story.

Remembering Jacob: Park’s namesake gives the work extra meaning

While the crews always enjoy getting out to ply their skills, Dyer said the satisfaction jumps up a level at Jacob’s Park. The inmates have learned the park is named for Jacob Francisco, who contracted an E. coli infection and died in 2004 at the age of six.  Jacob lived and played along Sinking Creek, but the specific source of the E. coli bacteria was never determined.

“It’s actually got a meaning with the kid that passed away and working for Mr. Francisco (Jacob’s father, Bill),” Dyer said. “That’s got a special place for them, because when you lose a child it’s a special place in your heart. These guys here are energetic and they were ready to go to work on this project.”

Deegan said the men’s reaction is a common one. “I come here all the time for a lot of different reasons, and I always try to make a conscious effort to think about Jacob, because this is Jacob’s Park. It wouldn’t be here without him and it wouldn’t be this far along without his family pushing it forward.”

Deegan said the park’s development has been “a huge community effort,” encompassing college students, state and county inmates, and community volunteers. Boone Watershed Partnership provided funds for the classroom materials, just as it did for the bridge, and a local engineering company, ProSim, completed the required drawings for free. “That’s how this park got put on the map and I think Jacob would think that’s cool.”

Columbine in bloom at Jacob’s Park.

Jacob’s Park features thousands of dollars worth of planted native pollinators, a 30-tree arboretum, more than 1.5 miles of trails and interpretive signage. It’s not mowed by the city and has no playground or other equipment.

“It’s a great park to come to if you’re a flower person, if you’re a tree person, this is for bird watchers, this is for photographers,” Deegan said. “This is for people who just want to be out in nature – it serves an incredible purpose. It’s a wildlife park. People are picking up watchable wildlife left and right and that’s what they want to do.”

Anyone looking for an active, educational family-friendly outing over the Thanksgiving weekend can learn more about the park at the Jacob’s Nature Park & Awareness Projects Facebook page.

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