Stephanie Porter-Nichols | Smyth County News and Messenger
Time spent in nature is believed to be beneficial to human health. To encourage more time outdoors and promote mental healing, two very diverse agencies are teaming up to offer Forest Fridays.
This summer, Mount Rogers Community Services and Hungry Mother State Park joined forces to “provide services in an ultimate healing environment.”
Ginny Moorer is the Trauma Recovery Coordinator at Mount Rogers. She said the agency is always looking at “how we can help build better, more resilient communities.”
Earlier this year, Moorer said, Mount Rogers staff wanted to develop a project that could “engage all parts of the community” and help members rely on and learn from each other. Realizing the incredible natural resources of southwestern Virginia, Moorer said, they contacted Hungry Mother and found her staff eager to help.
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Staff members from both agencies knew that Japanese culture has long practiced periods of “forest bathing,” which is simply spending time in nature and absorbing it through the senses. In the 1990s, researchers discovered that as little as five hours a month could provide measurable health benefits.
An article shared by the National Institutes of Health reported on a 2015 study that found that after forest bathing, middle-aged male participants had “significantly reduced pulse rate and significantly increased vigor score and decreased scores.” of depression, fatigue, anxiety and confusion….”
Moorer noted that Hungry Mother has in the past participated in ParkRx, a program that helps health and social service providers write prescriptions for spending time in nature.
With all of this information, Mount Rogers and Hungry Mother created Forest Fridays, which offers informed five-hour sessions that help participants reap the benefits of time spent in nature.
The practices, Moorer said, are largely informal but designed to help participants recognize their interconnectedness with nature.
Moorer’s team worked with the park’s interpretive staff to jointly develop the programs and lead the sessions.
Savannah Stephenson, education support specialist for the park, said Forest Fridays “help people connect with the world around us.”
At a time when people seem so disconnected, Stephenson believes this program helps them reconnect.
As an interpreter, she says, a big part of her job is to bring nature to people in a way they can understand.
While Mount Rogers guests can participate in Forest Fridays, the program is also open to community members and park visitors. Anyone of any age or ability can participate, Moorer said. To help attendees, parking is free for program participants who need only notify the park contact station staff of their participation.
This month, the program takes place every Friday from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Participants will meet in parking lot 2, which is the smallest in front of the old restaurant.
While Moorer encourages people to participate in as many sessions as possible, she noted that each is self-contained and can be enjoyed on its own.
The program follows the 5 Bridges to Wellness approach developed by Jacob Moore, the founder of NoStigmas, a non-profit mental health organization. Les5ponts.com says, “This evidence-based system is the result of two decades of research, clinical opinion, lived expertise and experimentation.”
The five bridges are Bond – How You Connect, Fuel – What Goes In, Move – What You Do, Rest – When You Recover, and Give – Your Positive Output.
Moorer said Mount Rogers Community Services “has been using this approach with positive health outcomes in our area for several years now.”
The system, she said, has been implemented in schools, businesses, nonprofits, and inpatient and outpatient settings. “More than 10,000 people have been served to date, including more than 5,000 at community service agencies in Virginia alone,” Moorer said.
Each Forest Friday focuses on a different deck.
Moorer encouraged anyone interested to attend a session and “connect with other people who want to look their best.”
Moorer hopes the program can be expanded to include other area parks. “We have such a beautiful and amazing place,” she said.
Stephenson likes to see the park giving back to the community and recognizing it “as a tool for health and wellness.”
She, too, urged people to try Forest Fridays, saying, “See what nature has to offer us for mental health and well-being.”