When Ken Voorhis has a bad day, he leaves his office and goes for a walk.
Technically, he doesn’t even need to be off-the-clock to take his stroll along the Middle Prong of the Little River. The river and the environment around it are as much his office as is his inside desk.
Voorhis is executive director of the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. Like his indoor-outdoor office environment, there is much that is unique about Tremont.
Voorhis said the core of what Tremont does is in-depth education about the environment. “Not many people can walk out their door into a National Park. Everybody visits the park, but being able to walk out your door into that living laboratory is unprecedented in terms of what you can learn,” he said.
As the Great Smoky Mountains National Park celebrates 75 years in 2009, Tremont reaches a young 40. For a 40-year-old, there are still lots of young children to parent, and time to boast that the institute has been teacher to thousands of school children from across the region in those 40 years, has been opened up to numerous summer camps for children and offers a smorgasbord of adult education opportunities, family hikes and excursions.
The director said he draws encouragement from that history. “When I have a bad day I pull out a file of letters from kids. I often read to staff -- the huge impact of being with us several summers, the effect camping has had on a life,” he said. “The impact we can have on young people and being able to see that day-to-day is what keeps me fired up.”
There are challenges, however. One of the biggest is reaching the minds of folks in their own backyard.
Nationally, Tremont has an excellent reputation for the educational programs its staff leads and people from all over the country marvel at the uniqueness of having a facility like Tremont. In Blount County and surrounding areas, however, many are unfamiliar with what the operation offers learners of all ages.
“One of messages I try to get out to the people in Blount County is -- I don’t think people recognize how unique Tremont is. There are approximately 10 places like this in the United States in national parks,” Voorhis said. “Sometimes I think people further away recognize the uniqueness of Tremont more than folks in our own backyard. You can’t find a Tremont in every community. The fact we have this place and can provide environmental education, it’s something I want Blount County folks to be proud of.”
Voorhis said the core of what Tremont does is educate school children and carry out school programs. “That’s our highest mission,” he said.
Tremont Board chair Dick Ray said the institute works with 5,000 to 6,000 students a year. Outreach numbers hover at 17,000, with 6,000 of that number staying at Tremont and receiving hands-on experiences in the park, Voorhis said.
The director said the staff recently reworked their school curriculum. “There are a couple of things people are looking for today, and we try to deliver. Everybody is interested in state and national standards and getting kids up-to-par with respect to the world of science,” Voorhis said. “The programs at Tremont aren’t just a fun field trip, they’re curriculum-based program that are tied to state curriculum.”
Voorhis said in 2008, schools from 12 different states visited Tremont. “They are looking to us because we have that tie to school curriculum. They see this is learning that will have an impact,” Voorhis said.
The institute just completed an in-depth study on the effectiveness of the programming, Voorhis said. Money from the Alcoa Foundation helped pay for the study, which Voorhis says has “set us apart as leaders in the field.”
“It showed that kids are learning, that Tremont programs have a greater value for the national park, that kids are becoming better learners and have greater sense of place,” Voorhis said.
Voorhis said too often today’s children are not exposed to the outdoors. “I think it’s something folks in our field have recognized all along. We have a generation of kids who haven’t grown up hunting and fishing and playing in the woods. We have kids who don’t know where food comes from,” he said. “There’s childhood obesity. Kids are not spending time outdoors.”
Ray said often it is dependent on the principals and science teachers at schools to ensure the students learn about nature and recognize the value of places such as Tremont. “Once they recognize it, our job and their job is to see to it all kids have the opportunity to come here for the residential experiences,” he said.
The board chair said an endowment needs to be built up to help underprivileged students come to Tremont. “We need to have an endowment whereby money from the endowment will allow us to bring all kids from any school systems who might not be able to come for lack of financial resources,” Ray said.
In the park
Voorhis said there is an incorrect perception about the relationship between Tremont and the National Park. “We’re tied to it, but we’re a separate non-profit. We earn our own way,” he said.
The director said the park has recently opted to reduce the amount of funding that Tremont receives from the Friends of the Smokies, the non-profit organization that supports the National Park’s efforts.
“We provide financial aid for children who come on a need basis. Last year about 80 percent of our budget came from fees we charged and 20 percent came from donations and grants,” Voorhis said.
Voorhis said he’s concerned that, in this economy, some parents may not be able to pay for their children to come experience the institute. It costs approximately $200 per student to attend Tremont. When a school identifies a need, the staff looks at the need of students, often using free and reduced lunch program statistics for the school to determine if they can help with scholarships. “We allocate that especially to local schools first,” Voorhis said.
The director said another concern he has is the condition of the facilities at Tremont, which opened in 1969. “Those 40-year-old facilities have served us well. We have a world-class program that is recognized nationwide. Our facility doesn’t match that level of program. We have staff that is highly proficient and highly trained but when you look at our facilities, they’re not that world-class,” he said.
Voorhis said Tremont needs to raise money to update and improve its facilities. “It’s not the best economic time to do that, but it’s a huge need for us to grow,” he said.
The director said Tremont is doing sustainable development modification. They have remodeled a classroom using the greenest, most environmentally sound methods and materials available. They also installed a solar array with funding from the Alcoa Foundation to help generate electricity.
“The Alcoa Foundation has been a big supporter of ours. Wal-Mart is doing work as well. Our solar array is the first one on the Sevier County Electric, and we’ll actually put power back into the grid,” Voorhis said. “It’s a demonstration that even in this valley and in the mountains, we can do something to live life better.”
Something for all
For adults, Tremont may be the best kept secret in the Smokies. It’s a secret Voorhis wants shouted from the highest mountain. Many local residents don’t know about the many programs Tremont offers for adults and families -- such as Elder Hostel, photo workshops and the naturalist certification program. “One of the things we’re known for is providing programs that go in-depth in natural history,” he said.
The director said staff are seeing more and more college students without a basic understanding of nature. “So we created a naturalists’ certification program. Through eight different classes on subjects such as plants, reptiles and amphibians, aquatic biology, high mountain ecology, they get their naturalist certification,” he said. “It’s like the master gardener program, and the program has really kicked off.”
Voorhis said Tremont also offers family camps. It is often the students who visited the institute that bring their families back for the summer camps. “We really love when we have kids from the school program who come for a summer camp programs,” he said. “Those summer camps provide even more in-depth experience for kids.”
The director said the staff also trains young professionals through their summer internship program. College and high school students get job experience and life experience by working in the National Park doing scientific research, which will be a resume builder. “I worked at a natural history museum in high school, and it set me in a different direction,” Voorhis said.
Being part of the plan
Ray said Tremont offers an academic facet to the National Park. “It should be noted that whatever we do has to be in concert with what the park feels its priorities are since we are guests and exist at the park’s pleasure,” Ray said. “Whatever we do has to be in concert with the priorities that have been set by the superintendent of the park.”
Voorhis said Tremont is in park’s management plan. “We work closely with the park. They have a whole experience of educational and interpretational programs in the park. With 9 million visits to the park, we’re a drop in the bucket with 5,000,” he said.
The director said there are visitors who come to the National Park just to drive through it. “We’re on the other end of the spectrum where we’re affecting a few people really deeply. It’s important to have that range of things in the park, to meet different needs,” he said. “We work closely with them to determine how we fit and blend with what they are doing.”
“Although small, we have although small, we have stars of the future in the residence programs,” Ray added.
Voorhis said the institute is a champion for the park’s future. “Lots of people consider the Smokies their home. People who have been through our programs live their lives and feel ownership of the park,” he said.
Voorhis said he gets the most fired up about being at Tremont after hearing teens return from a 10-day camping trip where Tremont staff and naturalists have taught them an appreciation for the park. “Those kids come back and this is their park. They’ve been in the back-country, living in the park for 10 days with naturalists who have shown them the in-depth story of the park,” he said. “Now those people are in leadership positions. I’m hoping because of that experience, they’re going to make good decisions related to the park and other places.”
The director said the institute also teaches students of all ages the many issues facing the park, including predator/prey relationships and how the ecosystem works. “There’s nothing to replace that direct experience,” he said. “We’re laying the groundwork with young people to help give them a love for and ownership of the National Park and wild places and experiences with the outdoors that is going to pay off way down the line.”
Searching for support
Voorhis said Tremont needs the support, both financially from donors and from individuals, groups and schools who come to experience the institute. Many adults in Blount County enjoyed Tremont as fifth graders and now Voorhis wants them to come back and experience Tremont again.
“We’re trying to develop opportunities to re-engage people who have been involved with Tremont,” he said.
The director said they plan scavenger hunts, a September homecoming and other activities to encourage adults to come back to Tremont.
“We’re looking for ways to re-engage folks who have been to Tremont. If anybody wants to hear more, they can email us, and we’ll put them on the email list.”
Ray said that while Tremont has a worthy mission, it faces the same problems of viability and generating financial support as any other non-profit organization. “This is not a slam dunk we run every year. It takes tremendous funding,” he said. “How well we run it depends on how much the public is willing to help us in this respect.”
Ray, a former executive with Alcoa, Inc., said children can have an effect on businesses and industry as they make decisions that affect the environment.
“Like any other segment of our nation, industry needs constant reminders that they have to be stewards of the environment,” he said. “What better reminder than to have your kid come back and say, ‘These are things I learned. I sure hope you are protecting our environment to the extent we can sustain the things we saw at Tremont.’”
Preparing for the party
Tremont marketing director Meredith Goins said a two-day celebration will mark the institute’s 40th birthday. “On Sept. 19, we’re having an all-day open house where Tremont staff -- old and new -- and all former students can get together to celebrate Tremont’s 40th anniversary. We’ll bring in the Walker family, the Girl Scouts who attended Camp Margaret Townsend and the Maryville College staff who helped make us and teach with us,” Goins said. “The next day is the Homecoming Celebration, which is $50 a ticket. We’ll have representatives from the organizations we’ve worked with talk about where we’ve been and how we’ve changed over the last 40 years.”
And if you go looking for Voorhis, check both the indoor and outdoor offices.
“That’s what I live for,” Voorhis said. “Being able to take people to a cool place like Tremont and being out in the woods. It’s good for the soul.”
The Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is located at 9275 Tremont Road, Townsend. Call 865-448-6709 for information or go online at www.gsmit.org.