Columbia County Recreation Department manager Charlie Beale has always taken pride in the uniqueness of the county's parks compared to those in the rest of the state. Columbia County now has an award to prove it.
The Recreation and Leisure Services Department received the Georgia Recreation and Parks Association's Innovated Program of the Year award for District 1 on Monday at an annual first-district banquet in Midville, Ga.
The award was for the work and effort put forth at the newly revamped Reed Creek Interpretive Park in Martinez.
"It was for the uniqueness of the program itself," Beale said. "There's no other park in the district that has anything like this, and that's what they look for."
District 1 encompasses 28 recreation departments in 25 counties in Georgia. Beale said much of the credit belongs to the staff at the park, which includes Travis White and educational coordinator Laura Beltran.
"She's been the key to putting the programs together," Beale said.
Those programs include weekly nature walks and scavenger hunts for elementary and preschool-aged children. After-school and home-school nature clubs have also been started.
"It's like a nature center," Beltran said. "More and more people are learning about it. We try to make these programs very hands-on."
That included a Nurturing Nature Preschool Walk scheduled for last Wednesday. Even in the rain, families showed up to learn about the plants and animals that live in and near the 15.4-acre park.
"It's wonderful to be recognized and to know that people realize that Columbia County is being progressive with its parks," Beltran said. "We've had a whole lot of people ask what we're all about."
It hasn't always been that way at the Martinez park. It was once like any other park with basketball goals and tennis courts. Then nature took over.
"The wetlands began to take back the facility," Beale said. "It took over the basketball courts and tennis courts and the racquetball wall."
Instead of abandoning the park to the wetlands, the county embraced it.
The basketball and tennis courts are gone and an educational building was constructed earlier this year that stands above the wetlands, along with an elevated boardwalk accessible to both strollers and wheelchairs.
"Our programs are now so full that we have to publicize them only in Columbia County," Beltran said. "We can't publicize outside of the county because there's too much interest."
Reed Creek Interpretive Park is open to the public from dawn until dusk. Beale said plans are in the works to expand the boardwalk and add hiking trails that connect with nearby Lakeside High School.
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