Cash, who is the first Black person to hold the park’s top job, initiated the program in response to the social unrest that swept the country last summer.
“As an African American man and son of a police officer, I found myself overwhelmed with the challenges we faced in 2020 and the endless news cycle that focused on racial unrest,” Cash said. “My medicine for dealing with this stress was a walk in the woods, and I felt called to share that experience with others. Following a summer hike in the park, I brought together our team to create an opportunity for people to come together for sharing, understanding and healing.”
The park — itself a place of incredible biological diversity — provided the ideal backdrop for the 60 people who participated in the hikes, as well as the hundreds of others who visited the Smokies Hikes for Healing website to gather information or download resources guides to lead their own healing hikes.
From August through December 2020, Cash joined up to 10 people at a time for hikes in locations across the park. Trained facilitators David Lamfrom, Stephanie Kyriazis and Marisol Jiménez led the hikes and created a space for open conversations about diversity and racism. Participants started the hikes as strangers but left with a deep connection and appreciation for diverse perspectives.
The park received more than 200 applications but could accept only 60. To help meet demand for participation, facilitators developed resources for others to start conversations in their own communities. They are available at www.smokieshikesforhealing.org. Find the video at youtu.be/lqlg1xzcw8u.