A Touching Experience : Pierce's Braille Trail Opens the Natural World to the Visually Impaired


On a blisteringly hot morning recently, Ann Covington, 83, was enthralled. "It's wonderful to be outside on a day like this. Where I come from, this is nice weather."

Covington, from Phoenix, and her daughter, Kate Wills of Woodland Hills, were walking the Pierce College Braille Trail, the school arboretum's 500-foot nature path designed for the visually impaired.

Although she has been partially blind for more than a decade, Covington still tends to her garden at home and enjoys learning more about plants and flowers. "They're so full of life--they're not just decorations," she said.

It wasn't long ago, however, that the Braille Trail had little life to it. Opened in 1970 on the first Earth Day, it had become neglected and overgrown because of misuse and budget problems.

"I was taking a geology course at Pierce College a few years ago, and one of the assignments was to find the Braille Trail on campus," said Lorraine Villarreal, community services director of the Telephone Pioneers of America, a volunteer organization of communications workers. "It wasn't easy to find because it was like a jungle with very few markers. You couldn't tell there was a trail there."

Villarreal got together with the Coalition to Save the Farm at Pierce College and, in a group effort, the attempt to restore the trail began. "We had to get approvals and line up the volunteers, but through a lot of hard work we got the job done," she said. Volunteers from the Boy Scouts also helped.

The trail was rededicated on April 22, the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. "We had the original designer of the trail there, and some of the people who worked on it when it opened," Villarreal said.

Pacific Bell, Pacific Telesis Group and many nurseries and landscape contractors donated money and materials. "In addition, we're trying to get the college's arboretum back in shape," said Margo Murman, president of the Coalition to Save the Farm at Pierce College.

The arboretum, which includes a greenhouse, vineyard and nursery, is at the eastern end of the campus. "There's so much work, since the plants have been so overgrown, that it's going to take a while," Murman said. "We're hoping that by next summer, it will be complete."

A restored arboretum is expected to be a valuable addition to the school's horticulture program. "We've had several landscape contractors and nursery professionals tell us that there are some excellent plant specimens in the arboretum. They just have to be trimmed and shown off," Villarreal said.

Not only the visually impaired can learn from the Braille Trail. "It's an all-access sensory trail," Murman said. "The informational plaques are in Braille and English alphabet, and we selected plants that have scent and texture besides being visually appealing. The trail really is for everyone."

Visitors can touch a Sequoia sapling and read about the giant trees and smell the geraniums and pineapple sage. Ferns and herbs are accessible through raised planters. "There's one plant, lamb's ear, which is very soft and is shaped like a real lamb's ear," Villarreal said. "It's just one of many plants we have that make the trail a well-rounded experience."

On field trips, teachers often have their students walk the trail blindfolded, "to get an idea of what it means not to have their sight," Murman said.

The trail will soon get a decomposed granite surface to make it easier for those in wheelchairs.

Each week, volunteer groups water, trim and rake. "We get quite a few leaves and weeds, and we need to keep the trail clear for people who may have trouble walking," Murman said.

Covington, who was several steps ahead of her daughter, said, "I'd like to come back when they finish the whole arboretum. I'm sure it will be beautiful."

"Next time she's visiting I'd like to take her out here again," Willis said. "But only if it's cooler."

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