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Chimney Champ: Waller helps raise $40K for park

David Waller’s tribute hosted by Friends of Newton Parks Inc. raised nearly $40,000 for Chimney Park. A paved trail, visible to the back of the bridge, now provides access for wheelchairs. The money also purchased a stone fire pit that will be in place in time for the Dec. 8 Twilights at Chimney Park. (Staff Photo: Crystal Tatum)

David Waller’s tribute hosted by Friends of Newton Parks Inc. raised nearly $40,000 for Chimney Park. A paved trail, visible to the back of the bridge, now provides access for wheelchairs. The money also purchased a stone fire pit that will be in place in time for the Dec. 8 Twilights at Chimney Park. (Staff Photo: Crystal Tatum)

COVINGTON — It’s only fitting that a crow’s call should provide the soundtrack as David Waller recounts his years dedicated to wildlife conservation.

Sitting at a picnic table just outside the entrance to Chimney Park, Waller pauses to point out a hawk swooping through the trees. A former wildlife biologist, Waller is in his element in this urban sanctuary. Located behind Newton County Library, Chimney Park was envisioned as a passive play area for people of all ages and abilities. It has been developed piecemeal over the last five years, as funding has become available. Until now, the goal to make Chimney Park accessible for the disabled has been out of reach, as the rugged terrain made it difficult to navigate wheelchairs.

But on Sept. 14, Friends of Newton Parks Inc. hosted a tribute to Waller that doubled as a fundraiser for the park. The goal was to raise $33,000 to install a paved trail for wheelchair access. That goal was exceeded, with nearly $40,000 raised.

“The outpouring of community support for an evening that honored David and raised funds for the park was heart-warming,” said Friends of Newton Parks Chair Jean Austin. “We will be able to complete the paving by our annual Twilights at Chimney Park festival on Dec. 8, but we also have enough funds now to install the stone fire pit that will be built in the heart of the park. We couldn’t be more grateful to our donors, sponsors and attendees for the success of this project that was months in the making and required thousands of volunteer hours.”

Waller wasn’t much in favor of being in the spotlight during the fundraiser, held at Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center. But he’s thrilled it raised so much money for the park, a passion project for him and his wife Connie.

“Something like this gets kids outside,” he said. “There’s too much time spent in front of the TV and computers …That’s why it’s so valuable to have places like this in urban areas so kids can go dig in the dirt and throw acorns at each other, see a hawk fly and chase a squirrel and hear crows calling.”

Waller, along with Jean Austin’s husband, Andy Austin, spent hours clearing the property in the early stages.

“It was one big jungle of (the invasive plant) Elaeagnus,” Waller said. “You couldn’t walk through it. You probably couldn’t drive a truck through it.”

Waller’s interest in Chimney Park was an offshoot of his efforts to get a countywide multi-use trail system. His wife, Connie, is also a past member of the board of Friends of Newton Parks.

But his friendship with Mike Hopkins, whose special needs children inspired the project, is what makes Chimney Park most meaningful to Waller.

“I just love kids and I love Mike Hopkins and his family, and I just see this as a huge asset to the community. From a selfish standpoint, it’s a great place to take my grandkids,” he said.

Waller is hoping to give the grandkids an even more spectacular experience. He’s got an idea for a fairy tale garden based on one he and Connie visited at Winterthur, a country estate north of Wilmington, Del. Nestled within a larger 60-acre garden, Enchanted Woods has charming features that include an acorn tearoom, troll bridge, faerie cottage and a bird’s nest to climb up in and listen to the meadow birds and forest sounds. While there may not be room on the 12-acre Chimney Park site for a garden of that scope, Waller believes it can be done on a smaller scale. There’s already a fairy festival there each spring. Such an attraction would draw kids out daily, Waller said.

During his tenure with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Waller learned that many inner city kids bused to Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center for educational programs didn’t know much about the great outdoors.

“Some of them had never seen a cow,” he said. Chimney Park is a place that can help bridge the disconnect between kids and Mother Nature, Waller believes.

Waller went to work for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources in 1971. He was director of the Wildlife Resources Division from 1990 until his retirement in 2003.

He saw 100,000 acres added to Georgia’s Wildlife Management and Natural Area systems, conserving the habitat of many species.

Under Waller’s leadership, the WRD developed six regional education centers across the state, including Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center in Mansfield. He expanded conservation programs for non-game wildlife and initiated a successful licensing program that raised more than $13 million for DNR programs.

A restoration program for eastern wild turkeys was deemed the best in the country. Locally, Waller campaigned for the countywide trail system and helped develop the 2050 Plan to protect natural resources during projected growth.