Sunday Conversation with Evan Barnard

Bar mitzvah project grows into way to introduce outdoors to visually impaired

For Johns Creek native Evan Barnard, what started as a bar mitzvah project has grown into a passion. When Barnard was 11, he helped repair a vandalized Braille nature trail in Rome, Georgia, for people who are visually impaired. “I couldn’t believe that anyone would take away the opportunity for someone to experience the outdoors,” he said. That event taught Barnard that there aren’t enough opportunities in general for people who can’t see to take in nature. In 2013, he spearheaded the effort to build the Whispering Woods Braille Trail at the Gwinnett Environmental and Heritage Center in Buford. Barnard also has created an online directory of Braille trails and sensory gardens in the United States and abroad.

In August, Barnard received the Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award from the California-based Helen Diller Family Foundation. The annual award — Hebrew for “to repair the world” — honors Jewish teens for exceptional service projects and comes with a $36,000 prize to further a recipient’s project or education. “I would really like to expand my efforts to include people with other physical disabilities,” said Barnard, now a sophomore at the University of Georgia. “I believe everyone should have access to nature.”

Q: Do you spend a lot of time outdoors?

A: I have always loved the outdoors. I grew up spending time along the coast playing in tide pools and learning about the importance of the ocean. I have been a hiker for a very long time. Nature is just something that is really important to me and I like educating others about it.

Q: What is a Braille nature trail?

A: It is a trail with Braille signage that has guide ropes so visually impaired people can walk along unassisted and enjoy sensory experiences. They can touch scratchy bark and tree roots, listen to birds and feel the breeze drifting through the leaves on the trees. The trails also offer educational information about plants and animals.

Q: Tell us about the Whispering Woods Braille Trail.

A: It is a loop trail with guide ropes that a person can hold onto and walk unassisted from start to finish. Eighteen Braille signs along the rope present numerous opportunities for tactile and sensory experiences, such as hugging trees and touching soft moss. Each sign has high-contrast large print and Braille describing the area and natural features. The signs explain characteristics of types of trees, natural history and even uses of trees by Native Americans. When I was designing the trail, I had members of the Georgia Council of the Blind test the features and give suggestions. They all loved it, and I have held multiple walks for people who are visually impaired on the completed trail.

Q: How did you decide on your bar mitzvah project in the first place?

A: I wanted my project to be something relevant to nature that would have a lasting impact. After repairing the vandalized Braille trail, I discovered people who are visually impaired don't really have access to the outdoors. I felt that was wrong and asked, "How can I make a difference?" I started working with the Georgia Council of the Blind eight years ago. I never knew that this would grow into what it is today.

Q: Why is experiencing nature important for people who are visually impaired?

A: Being outdoors is really important for the health, education and well-being of all people, regardless of location, age or physical capability.

Q: How many Braille trails are there?

A: Over 200 trails and sensory gardens in 35 countries worldwide. A list of them can be found on my website, www.natureforblind.com. According to the World Health Organization, 285 million people are visually impaired, 39 million are blind. One in five Americans has a disability, as does 15 percent of the world population. These statistics warrant a global plan of action.

Q: What are you going to do with the prize money?

A: I am studying ecology and sustainability at UGA. I am planning to use the money for graduate school to study environmental policy. I want to expand my website and also advocate for all people with disabilities on a global scale.

Nominations are now open for the 2018 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards. For more on the award, or to recommend or nominate a teen, go to www.dillerteenawards.org

In Other News