Five questions with Jenn Collins, director of outreach and education for Chattahoochee RiverWarden

October 7, 2012 

  • VITAL STATS

    Name: Jenn Collins

    Age: 38

    Job: Director of Outreach & Education, Chattahoochee RiverWarden

    Current home: Columbus

    Hometown: Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but Columbus is home

    Education: Bachelor of arts in sociology, Wake Forest University; master’s in environmental science, Columbus State University.

    Family: Husband Brad Barnes, writer and editor at Aflac.

    Favorite quote: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” Edmund Burke

    Favorite book: My dad Delton Collins’ “Modern American & British Poetry” textbook from his days at Mercer University, back in the 1950s

    Favorite movie: “All the President’s Men”

What do you do for RiverWarden?

We're a nonprofit working hard to protect the Chattahoochee from West Point Lake all the way down to the Florida state line. My job is in outreach, where every day brings something new. This month alone, I've put together classroom lesson plans for "Help the 'Hooch" that show how litter affects water quality, designed thousands of magnets that explain how to properly dispose of fats, oils and grease to prevent sewer leaks, and written grants to buy water-quality test kits for civic groups. But my favorite part of the job is certifying Adopt-A-Stream monitors. Our office does chemical and bacterial testing every month on lots of streams that feed the Chattahoochee, but there's no way our small staff can keep an eye on everything, so we depend on volunteers. We teach free classes in stream monitoring to anyone who loves the river and is willing to spend an hour each month protecting it. Adopt-A-Stream is easy and fun, and I enjoy seeing people's faces light up when they realize the impact of their work -- especially teenagers who never thought they were any good at science.

What's the status of Bibb City's preservation and beautification efforts?

We have a strong neighborhood association that recently planted a second neighborhood garden at the 35th Street entrance, and we hope to tackle the erosion issues along our street embankments by raising money to plant native, drought-tolerant ground cover. Our group was thrilled with the city's decision to restore Comer Auditorium, particularly since we discovered it was designed by Ellamae Ellis League, a pioneering woman in Southern architecture. From what I understand, the city plans to designate a small part of the facility as a Bibb City museum, and the folks at Parks and Recreation have been great, asking for input and artifacts from longtime residents. I've lived in "The Bibb" since 2000, and the transformation has been astounding. So many wonderful people have moved in and restored homes, and we have a tight-knit, front-porch community. You couldn't pay me to live anywhere else.

What are your plans for the vacant lot you bought?

Each year, Brad and I try to grow more of our own food. We've already built four raised vegetable beds in the front yard, but there's no more room for perennial trees and bushes in our Bibb City plot. So we purchased a quarter-acre vacant lot that we're going to use as a fruit orchard. We plan to grow everything organically, using no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, and we've picked plants that thrive in our area with minimal intervention -- figs, persimmons, blackberries, blueberries, pawpaws, and elderberries. To use water efficiently, we're going to install a drip-irrigation system, and our composted food scraps will serve as fertilizer. Hopefully the cover crops we plant this fall will add nutrients to the soil before the trees go in the ground next year. We've never done anything like this before, but I'm excited about learning how to nurture a large-scale garden.

What else are you involved in?

I dearly love Pasaquan, the historic art site in Buena Vista, and I serve on its preservation board as well as the planning committee for our upcoming "Artists for Pasaquan" festival. I'm also an avid proponent of commuter cycling, so I work with the River Valley Regional Commission's Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Board, and I'm on the board of the nonprofit Bicycle Columbus. The city has made great strides in bike accessibility, and I hope to see that trend continue with a "Bicycle Friendly Community" designation. I'm a part of the Trees Columbus Teaching Team, the Artbeat of Columbus programming committee, the Columbus Audubon Society, and the Chattahoochee Valley Beekeepers Association. I never cease to be amazed at the variety of activities going on in the valley.

What is the Columbus area's best-kept secret?

The Chattahoochee River. We pass by it day after day, taking for granted what a spectacular thing it really is. Our ecology on the Fall Line is like no place else on Earth, and the river provides our life-giving drinking water. Not to mention it's just fun to spend time on the 'Hooch.

Before you hop in the car and drive 100 miles to look at nature, take a trip to the RiverWalk instead. I guarantee you'll be pleasantly surprised. Go early in the morning to watch bald eagles soaring overhead or great blue herons circling their rookery.

Take a walk by the river in the evening after dinner, listening to a chorus of cricket frogs. It's the lifeline of this city, both environmentally and economically, and I'm so lucky that my job gives me an outlet to help others love it as much as I do.

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