Community foundations band together to build the Okanagan Rail Trail one step at a time

When the Okanagan Rail Trail is completed—connecting 50 kilometres of British Columbian communities from Vernon to Kelowna on top of abandoned CN rail lines—it’s estimated that more than 148,000 walking trips and 300,000 cycling trips will take place along it every year.

According to Leanne Hammond, Executive Director of the Community Foundation of the North Okanagan — one of two foundations administering donations for the project — at least one of those trips will be made by her: “As soon as we kicked off the fundraising, I bought a cruiser bike with a big basket for a picnic.” Hammond admits she hasn’t ridden a bike for years, though she’s not worried. “The thing about the trail is: it’s long, but it’s flat.”

In 2015, a group of local governments purchased the trail’s land—with help from the province—but it was left to the public to come up with an additional $7.2 million needed to develop it into a useful path. Brad Clements, an economics professor at Okanagan College, stepped up to lead that effort. So far, he has recruited three dozen volunteer “trail ambassadors” to help spread the word and drum up financial support from individuals and businesses.

When Clements approached the Community Foundation of North Okanagan and the Central Okanagan Foundation to ask if they’d participate by receiving the donations, both groups immediately recognized that the trail aligns with their own purposes to create legacy projects that improve communities. “It’s not just for the citizens who live here today,” Hammond explains. “But for our children and grandchildren, too.”

By July 1st, more than 3,900  donors had raised over 60% of the funds needed to complete the trail. That number, says Hammond, has been a testament to truly grassroots nature of the campaign. “Foundations are often perceived as appealing to mostly high net worth donors, but that’s not the case here,” she says, adding that while some larger donations have been received, those were often used to match donations by everyday people. “This campaign has appealed to people at every level.”

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