What We DoHealthy Living & Active CommunitiesSunflower Trails Profile: Overbrook

Sunflower Trails Profile: Overbrook

A few years ago, young people were having all the fun playing outdoors in Overbrook.

In the summer, recreational baseball and softball teams kept the town’s sports venues busy. In the fall and spring, school teams occupied the baseball diamonds and football fields in and around this small town 25 miles southeast of Topeka.

“We had the youth covered, but there really wasn’t any place for people over 30 to exercise outside,” said Jo Ellen Criger, a local resident who works with the town’s PRIDE community improvement program.

“If you live in town, the closest place to walk was on the high school track. And that’s five miles outside of town,” she said.

The city built a lake for recreation and conservation in 1999 on the east end of town. It became clear that the lake, a quiet area surrounded by trees, would become an asset to the community.

But aside from the nearby baseball fields, there wasn’t much else to draw residents or visitors to the lake. The city surveyed its residents about other amenities they would like to have in a city park.

Among them: a safe place for adults to walk and jog.

Identifying Needs

Identifying the city’s needs was the first step in the journey, said Jon Brady, the current chairman of Overbrook PRIDE.

A group of community members formed to begin working on the project, many of whom were recruited from their participation in the survey.

As the group studied various options for improvements around the lake, it became clear that recreation would be a top priority. The city applied for and received several grants to improve access and usability of the lake, and began to install a paved trail around the lake.

Community members provided a wealth of resources. Someone had a bulldozer and a skid steer, Criger said, and volunteered the equipment and their time to operate it. A local cement company also donated to the project.

As they looked around for funding opportunities, it became clear that many grants required a non-profit, 501(c)3 organization to be the fiscal agent, as opposed to a local government body.

Creating such an organization became as critical a component to the infrastructure of the project as pouring the cement for the sidewalks and planting the trees.

Overbrook PRIDE

It took Overbrook PRIDE several years to receive its 501(c)3 non-profit, tax-exempt status, Brady said. The process was often challenging: it was lengthy, expensive, and relied on the expertise of attorneys and consultants.

But it taught the group a valuable lesson: for big community projects, you need a variety of volunteers.

“Community involvement is key,” Brady said. “Everybody wants to be involved, but they don’t necessarily want to do everything. You need to be able to tap into their strengths. We have folks who were really good at writing, folks who were good at the legal aspects of a project. Don’t be afraid to ask them to help.”

Volunteer work, however, isn’t always free.

An electric company donated the metal light poles for lights at the new children’s play area at the lake — but not the resources to install the lights on the poles. The contractors who donated services had paying jobs of their own that came first, creating scheduling challenges for the project.

The Homestretch

The community still needed to find funding to finish the project.

The trail project's committee heard from one of its consultants — who had worked on other community trails with the Sunflower Foundation — that it might reach out to the foundation.

“We called them up and laid out our overall plan,” Brady said. “We were eligible for the program and they said that since we were a 501(c)3, we could apply.”

The Sunflower grant was a small piece of the multi-year project — which drew on public and private funding, volunteer work and paid contractors. The grant allowed the community facilitated finishing the walking trail around the lake. And it allowed allowed Overbrook PRIDE to leverage funds to make other sources of funding possible.

“We starting asking ourselves, ‘can this grant be matched with another grant?’” Brady said. “We made a big spreadsheet and started putting things together.”

Brady and Criger offer the following tips to other communities thinking about embarking on similar projects:

Tips for Communities

  1. Build up support from the beginning. From the day the committee decided to move forward on constructing the park and the walking trail, they talked to business owners and others in the community and kept them updated on the project’s progress. When they needed letters of support for grant proposals, they were made available in short order.  “We knew they were on board to start with,” Brady said. “When you did go back and ask for help, you knew you’d have it.”
  2. Take field trips with community members to other towns that have completed similar projects. Ask for recommendations for vendors, and for lessons learned. “You need to be able to have a lot of different contacts with a lot of different people who you think might be able to help,” Criger said.
  3. Prepare to resolve conflicts. A key disagreement in the Overbrook project bubbled up over toilets. The men on the committee voted for rustic pit toilets, while the women preferred restrooms with sinks and running water. “We had a lot of strong opinions on it,” Brady said. “We finally said, ‘how can we resolve this?’ We asked grantors who were giving money. As soon as they gave their opinion, the disagreement all went away.”
  4. Build and maintain good relationships with city, county, and other government officials. “You’ll need their support,” Brady said. “You will need them to take a piece here and there, to take responsibility for certain things. Without that partnership, it will be very difficult.”
  5. Make sure to factor in the extra costs that may not be covered by volunteer labor and donations — as well as a realistic expectation about the amount of time that tasks will take. Even though the group had access to an accountant and an attorney, for instance, the process to acquire the 501(c)3 tax status was costly and took longer than the group anticipated. “That in and of itself was a chore,” Brady said. “It was a two to three year process, and it was expensive.”


Popular Place In Town

Now that the trail is complete, Brady and Criger said, it’s one of the most popular places in town.

The trail is in use all day, from the mornings when mothers push their young children in strollers to evenings when families and friends gather to walk. Between baseball games, spectators take a lap or two around the lake to get some exercise themselves.

“We’re really happy with the trail,” Brady said.

• • •

Behind every trail, there is a story. A story about the vision, the planning and the people who made it happen. A story about the challenges, lessons learned and the way communities come together around a trail. This series of profiles help show how Sunflower Trails are helping make Kansas a healthier place to live. 

To tell your community trail's story, please contact Director of Communications Phil Cauthon at pcauthon@sunflowerfoundation.org or call (785) 232-3000 ext. 101.

To learn more about the Sunflower Trails grant program, please contact Program Officer Elizabeth Stewart at estewart@sunflowerfoundation.org or call (785) 232-3000 ext. 112.

Cover photo: An aerial photo of Menninger Hill in Topeka, Kansas. The Sunflower Foundation will relocate to Menninger Hill in late 2020. Our home will be located directly south of the Tower Building (pictured in this report).