Finding Common Ground to make a change

By Katrina Grant

Finding Common Ground is a project in Shamong and surrounding areas that aims to educate, maintain and beautify open space to be used for education, hiking, biking and trailing.

Ten years ago, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance created the Summer Teacher Institute to bring Pinelands curriculum and issues to a broader audience. For the first six years, program participants gained field experience in ecology, archaeology and various other subjects in the Pinelands. The program wanted to use the same teachers each time because it found that they worked better together.

“You get more bang for your buck when you use the same teachers,” John Volpa, creator of Finding Common Ground said. “You get the value of a team working together.”

The Summer Teacher Institute is a weeklong program and has approximately 24 participants.

“The program is free and the teachers get professional teaching credits,” Volpa said. “This program is also site and audience specific.”

Finding Common Ground was influenced by many different variables. In 2003, Volpa became part the Environmental Commission in Evesham and Sustainable Evesham. He was also an avid biker.

“While I was riding my bike one day, I said to myself, ‘I’m the only one here, this is beautiful, why isn’t anyone here?’” Volpa said.

What Volpa found was that many people didn’t use the trails because ATV riders and others were destroying them. A few years back, Volpa was approached by Barbara Solem-Stull, author of Ghost Towns and other quirky places in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, for some help about an issue.

“Behind Barbara’s house is what is known as the pit,” Volpa said. “That area has had a problem with kids trashing it, being rude to Barbara when confronted, and the kids that are trashing the area are my students.”

There was even an incident with a couch that was used as a ramp was set on fire.

“It was lucky it didn’t burn down the woods,” Volpa said.

Volpa brought the issue up at the school, but wasn’t able to get anyone to move on it. In 1997, Volpa became the student council advisor, and when, the incident occurred, brought this issue up with the student council.

“I took the idea to the student council, and they liked it,” Volpa said. “They wanted to focus on the pit open space. They wanted to find solutions for the trash and other issues. We took the idea to the superintendent and principal and to Seneca High School. Then, in December of 2009, we made a presentation to the mayor and deputy mayor.”

In January of 2010, the township made Finding Common Ground an official subcommittee, and the first order of business was to secure funding. Finding Common Ground reached out to the REI Outdoor School that nominates non-profits for community grants. Because the township owned some of the acres of the pit, they were not able to secure that grant.

However, Finding Common Ground reached out to the Rancocas Conservancy, which owns some acres, to have them apply for the grant, and they got it.

“They shared the $10,000 grant with the township,” Volpa said.

Since the creation of Finding Common Ground, they have been able to create a trails network. They have one mile of marked trails and one mile across from Dingletown.

“We have used the philosophies of thinking globally and acting locally and using the open spaces educationally. People always think kids can’t do big things, but youth is very much capable of making change.”