A new project connecting trails in Southwest Fort Wayne elevates people, places and sense of place

Community-wide change doesn’t happen overnight. However, when individuals and groups come together around a common cause, the results can quickly be impressive. 

That’s the case for the Stillwater Hospice Trails Project in Southwest Fort Wayne. The project will help make the trail located near Stillwater Hospice’s Peggy F. Murphy Community Grief Center more accessible to the general public. 

Families explore the prairie outside of Stillwater Hospice. The project is a collaboration between Fort Wayne Trails, the City of Fort Wayne and AARP Indiana. Funded partly through an AARP Community Challenge quick-action grant, $7,400 is earmarked to pay for the addition of curb ramps, wayfaring, and interpretive signs to help people of all ages and abilities enjoy the amenities. They’ve also set aside funds to purchase dog pots to keep the trails clean for enthusiasts of all species. The City has pledged donations of bike racks. 
Fort Wayne Trails Executive Director Megan McClellan
The new trail and its accompanying amenities are slated to begin installation at the end of this month. Fort Wayne Trails’ Executive Director Megan McClellan says the Stillwater site was chosen because of its untapped potential. Stillwater has a two-acre native prairie, a pond, and 3/4 mile of walking paths. It’s estimated the prairie contains 47 species of flowering plants and many species of animals, birds and butterflies.

“There's a native prairie with a trail that runs through it,” she says. “There’s a paved path around it. The prairie and the pond are open for the public to use, but most people don't realize this. They also have one of the trails going down Liberty Mills Road that’s owned by the City of Fort Wayne. It’s a big public trail — anyone can go down it. Stillwater had reached out (to the city) about connecting Liberty Mills Road’s trail to the amenities.”

Unfortunately, the City couldn’t pay for construction to connect the existing trail to private property because of rules governing how public funds are spent. But city officials were eager to find a solution, so they encouraged Fort Wayne Trails to explore the possibility of leading the charge. 

This collaboration isn’t the first time the nonprofit and the municipal government have engaged. Recently, the City of Fort Wayne and Fort Wayne Trails have identified four Priority Corridor Trail sections, one in each quadrant of Fort Wayne. Once completed, they will connect over 27 miles of trail corridors and forge important connections across the city, according to Fort Wayne Trails’ website

Families explore the prairie outside of Stillwater Hospice.However, these projects don’t come without a cost. That’s why it was fortuitous that McClellan had come across the AARP Community Challenge grant just hours before the request from the City came across her desk. The project ticked all the proverbial boxes so she eagerly submitted the application. The public announcement of the grant was issued in June. It was then that McClellan and her partners learned they were among 310 grantees in the nation to secure these funds. In her estimation, that makes the project sweeter.

Once complete by the end of November at the latest, McClellan says the trails project will help grieving families while also catering to the general public. The pastoral backdrop is another key element and its calming effects cannot be overstated especially when family and friends are supporting their loved ones.  

“It’s a really hard time for these families — and especially little kids —  who don't really understand what's going on,” she says. “They might be running around and bouncing off the walls. It’s just too much for the person in hospice. It’s nice to be able to go out to the prairie and give them a space to be calmer. There are a lot of animals and birds. You can sit on a bench and watch the (wildlife) and decompress from that. It's very much for all families, not just the people who are utilizing Stillwater services.”

These quality-of-life pieces are exactly why AARP saw potential in the project’s ability to connect people and spaces. AARP Indiana’s Director of Community Engagement Emily Gorman says these grants allow them to connect on a deeper level with the changemakers and organizations in communities. 

Families explore the prairie outside of Stillwater Hospice.“This is one of those really cool programs and opportunities that allows us to do that,” says Gorman. “We really do have a focus on our work in the livable community space — so things like transportation, housing, engaging communal spaces, revitalizing them, accessibility— those are all things that are in our wheelhouse and things that we really try to focus on.”

She says when evaluating the grant applications her team was drawn to one element of the trails project. 

“I loved the intergenerational component of it, encouraging people to come and spend time in a space that they might not usually go to,” she explains. “It’s encouraging people to utilize a relatively underused space by connecting those trails together or connecting that property to the trail system. We thought it was a really great use of those funds.”

She says she also believes that this project could be larger than the projected scope. More than just infrastructure, it could be a catalyst for similar projects in the community that align with AARP’s values and funding priorities. 

“(The city and its partners) have done so much work over the years to make sure everything is connected, but also we're encouraging people to use them and go outside and spend time outside using our legs and not just cars for everything,” says Gorman. “ I appreciate that mission. It very much aligns with what we try to do as well. And so I would love to see more similar projects come from those that are inspired by it.”

Families explore the prairie outside of Stillwater Hospice.
With that in mind, Gorman offers a challenge: “I'm sure there are more opportunities in other places in Fort Wayne that could be done and replicated to have a similar impact.”

Speaking of impact, this trail project might be the physical representation of what it means to unite stakeholders around a common cause and vision. As these organizations came together to address trail access and promote mobility, their synergies have resulted in literal connections. Trails can create happier and healthier communities —  and that’s a goal everyone can get behind. 

Learn more about AARP’s Community Challenge grant here.

Learn more about Fort Wayne Trails here.

This story was made possible by AARP Indiana.
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Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.