CHAPEL HILL — It was the middle of the pandemic, and Marianne Maschal was exhausted.
Watching over three small children who were around at all hours of the day — while she cooked and cleaned — she sought some relief. One of the ways her family found that relief was through nature walks at nearby trails.
As an outdoor educator, Maschal would teach her kids about the native plants, what poison ivy looked like and the importance of being good stewards of the land they inherited.
When her three little ones returned to North Chatham Elementary School in 2021, masks still on to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she realized there was a need for that natural beauty at school, too.
“These kids need a nature walk,” Maschal said. “And we need to make it a really good one.”
That vision was realized on Saturday at the North Chatham “Trail-a-bration” as more than 40 volunteers came to the school — gardening tools in hand — to help mulch, weed and plant that nature trail. The school also officially cut the ribbon on the trail.
When completed, the Jaguar Trail at North Chatham Elementary will be four feet wide, and wrap around the entire campus, creating a one-mile loop for students, and the community to enjoy.
It was because of Maschal’s spark and desire for a vibrant outdoor space that the trail became a reality. Less than six months ago, the area beside the pickup and drop-off area at the entrance of the school was shrouded in wisteria, overgrown branches and ivy.
It looked more like the entrance to a forbidden forest than the entry to an outdoor education trail.
But Maschal could see it in her mind’s eye. She envisioned teachers preparing outdoor lessons on various types of local birds, children touching the plants with their own two hands and an adaptive trail space so that kids of all abilities could appreciate the magic of the outdoors.
She drew up a rough map of the potential trail and with some encouragement from the NCES Parent Teachers Association, Maschal applied for a $1,000 grant to begin the work. The grant covered machinery to come and clear out large patches of the wisteria.
When Maschal began walking in the future trail area she uncovered something unexpected: evidence of the past. She found old birdhouses, bridges and piles of stones.
“It was kind of like being an anthropologist,” Maschal said. “We discovered a nature trail that was already here.”
North Chatham was a K-8 school prior to the opening of Margaret Pollard Middle School in 2011. Dr. Janice Giles, NCES principal, said the trail had been used as the cross-country trail for the middle school team. But when the team left, so did the maintenance of the Jaguar Trail.
“Marianne has spent countless hours here and she is really transforming our school,” Giles said.
Rediscovering the trail, and making it into something new, has been a community effort of volunteers. Maschal visits the school at least three times per week and often brings other parents along with her to help prepare the trail.
“We’re doing this wild and crazy thing, but it’s really been quite magical,” Maschal said. “We learned how important nature was to our mental health, our healing, relationships and our community.”
She said the community that came together Saturday — fittingly, it was Earth Day — was a perfect example of the type of buy-in needed to make this space impactful for students when completed.
Volunteers from Fearrington Village, the Chatham County Democratic Party and other local church groups helped with a variety of tasks before a storm rolled in.
One of those volunteers was Vickie Atkinson, a neighbor of Maschal and a volunteer with the Chatham Democrats. She said she was in awe of the space students would have access to when the trail was completed.
“We actually vote at this school on Election Day,” Atkinson said. “So I think it’s important that we don’t just pester folks once every two years, but show we care about our community, and especially the children who will get to utilize this fabulous trail.”
The trail itself also features marks of the community. For example, the entrance to the Jaguar Trail is lined with plants donated by Rachel’s Native Plants, a new plant shop in Pittsboro. Chapel Hill Grit contributed an adaptive grit to make sure the trail is usable for people in wheelchairs, strollers and wagons.
“We’ve invested a lot in making sure it’s not just a nature trail, but making sure it’s a trail for everyone,” Maschal said. “That’s a priority. It’s important that people who are always shut off from nature are not shut out here.”
Saturday’s ribbon-cutting also came with an announcement of future opportunities for NCES. The trail was named a recipient of the North Carolina Schools Go Outside Grant. The funds, worth $10,000, will be used to purchase a variety of outdoor education materials for students including a greenhouse, sensory water tables and gardening equipment.
According to its website, Go Outside Grants provide North Carolina’s students access to the outdoors and opportunities for direct experience and to learn by doing.
Maschal said she has big intentions for integrating the new funds into outdoor education lessons. Her vision is to make NCES into a nature-friendly haven for students to learn about gardening, pick their own flowers and crops and find a deep appreciation for nature.
Along with the nature trail, Maschal also helps maintain a community garden on campus. Students tend to the garden during recess, where she teaches them about seeds and how to care for the soil.
Attendees Saturday had the chance to walk the Jaguar Trail, and no more than a quarter-mile in it becomes clear why a space like this can be so powerful. Several walkers remarked that it felt like they were in the deep woods — that sense of green serenity cleansing the soul. It was on that walk that others realized the relief that Maschal had envisioned all along.