If you’re driving between Chattanooga and Nashville, a slight detour and a few miles along country backroads will take you to the town of Chapel Hill, Tennessee and Henry Horton State Park. Established in 1961, the park sits along the Duck River on 1,140 acres that once belonged to Henry H. Horton, the state’s 36th governor.
The park, which welcomes around 700,000 visitors each year, is home to beautiful scenery, along with amenities like a golf course, campsites, a lodge and a restaurant. Soon it will house the next BlueCross Healthy Place – the first completed within a Tennessee state park.
Perseverance that paid off
The BlueCross Healthy Place at Henry Horton State Park is the vision of two men: Dan Green, facilities supervisor at Henry Horton State Park, and Ryan Jenkins, park manager.
For Dan, his family’s own experiences prompted a dream for the park and the children of Chapel Hill.
“About three years ago, I came to Ryan with the idea for an accessible playground in the park,” he says. “We have beautiful playgrounds throughout the park, and while they’re compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, that doesn’t mean children of every ability can enjoy them.”
Many of the park’s existing playgrounds have mulch surfaces, which can make it difficult or impossible for children with mobility issues to access them.
“This project is something that is near and dear to both my wife and I,” he adds. “We have family members with special needs, and we’re strong believers in learning through play. When a child can’t play with their friend or sibling on the same piece of playground equipment…” he says, his voice trailing off.
When Dan shared his idea with Ryan, he “put him to work” creating plans and securing funding. This turned out to be a lesson in perseverance, but when Ryan, who was already in talks with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee about supporting other initiatives in the park, found out about the BlueCross Healthy Place program, he realized it might be the perfect opportunity to put Dan’s vision in motion.
Dan and Ryan, along with other park rangers and staff members, put together a proposal and were awarded a $600,000 grant from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation to build an accessible playground at Henry Horton State Park. To help provide for the space’s future care, the BlueCross Foundation is providing an additional $120,000 for ongoing maintenance.
To Chelsea Johnson, manager of the BlueCross Foundation, the project stood out from the start.
“We were really excited when we saw a state park present an opportunity to partner with them,” she says. “When we saw the proposal, we knew we had to visit. Once we visited, it was clear this was a partner we wanted to work with.”
Combining education with play
Making the BlueCross Healthy Place at Henry Horton State Park accessible to children of all abilities was the top priority, but park staff also wanted to ensure the design would celebrate the Duck River region.
The Duck River winds for 269 miles and is largely considered to be one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in North America. According to The Nature Conservancy, it is home to more species of freshwater fish, 151 total, than all the rivers in Europe combined. It is also home to 60 species of freshwater mussels, including the extremely rare birdwing pearlymussel and the Tennessee clubshell, along with 22 species of aquatic snails.
And the area is rich in history. The park sits on land that was once Native American ceremonial grounds. In the 1700s, early settlers crossed the river. Andrew Jackson created Fishing Ford Road, which runs through the park, and the remains of a gristmill used by the family of Governor Horton’s wife are still visible.
According to Ryan, it’s this combination of nature and history that makes Henry Horton State Park truly special.
He and his team have worked with the BlueCross Foundation and the design team at PlayCore to ensure these elements are reflected in the new BlueCross Healthy Place.
“We’re trying to bring nature and history back into the story of Henry Horton State Park,” Ryan says. “We want to use the BlueCross Healthy Place as a hands-on educational area to teach visitors and kids about the importance of the river and the early communities that lived here.”
When completed, the BlueCross Healthy Place at Henry Horton State Park will include two fully accessible play areas: one for children ages 2-5 and one for children ages 5-12. Both play spaces will include ramp access, specially designed equipment and a soft rubber safety surface for children who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices.
Adjacent to the play area will be a discovery trail and several discovery pods designed to teach children about the wildlife and the history of the park. Features will include an erosion table, elements that showcase the lifecycle of a frog and a small gristmill.
Chelsea hopes the BlueCross Foundation’s investment will enhance the park’s offerings for its visitors.
“The park is already a destination for area residents and school field trips,” she says, “but this project will give them additional assets to encourage those educational trips.”
Henry Horton staff and representatives of the BlueCross Foundation celebrated the project’s groundbreaking in October. For Dan, the day meant he was one step closer to realizing his dream. “I’m very proud of our park, and I’m very grateful to BlueCross. Our community is going to be blown away. They need this – there’s such a need for this. And we get to have it at our park – right here at Henry Horton.”
The BlueCross Healthy Place at Henry Horton State Park is scheduled to open in 2020. Watch a video on the progress below.