May 15, 2018

SIU’s Touch of Nature invites the public to participate in new Welcome Plaza project

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Touch of Nature Environmental Center is about to become even more inviting.

A new multi-purpose Welcome Plaza is being established at the main entrance to Camp 2. The site, which is handicapped-accessible and located adjacent to a large parking lot, will give people and groups a special place to meet and connect when coming to the facility for any reason. It will also serve as an educational spot and an open area for visitors.

Public participation in the project is welcomed.

Pavilion to include engraved pavers, benches and more

Plans call for a large circular open-air pavilion with tapered stone background walls surrounding the rear portion. Concrete benches and indigenous bushes and flowers will line the interior of the wall and the floor will be covered with special bricks and pavers.

There will also be educational kiosks featuring information about the facility and its unique history, as well as its flora and fauna.

Anyone may purchase an engraved paver or brick

Groups, individuals and businesses are invited to show their support for Touch of Nature and the great things that happens there while also honoring loved ones or recognizing people and businesses. The floor of the plaza will feature special etched bricks and paver stones.

The bricks are standard 4 by 8 inch rectangles while the ground pavers are 18 inches square. On each, up to three lines of text, with a maximum of 13 characters per line, can be added. The cost of an engraved brick is $100 while a paver is $250.

The bricks and pavers will be available for purchase at any time. The patio will be constructed in such a way that plain bricks and pavers can be replaced with engraved ones any time someone makes a purchase, according to J.D. Tanner, director of Touch of Nature.

Honoring the legacy with future additions

Future plans call for adding a statue of William Freeberg, the pioneering therapeutic recreation expert. He and Delyte Morris, the late SIU president, acquired 150 acres in the Shawnee National Forest and created the first university-affiliated residential summer camp for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. Camp at Little Grassy Lake, now known as Camp Little Giant, continues to provide a true summer camp experience adapted especially to the abilities and disabilities of participants.

Since 1949, Touch of Nature Environmental Center, once known as SIU’s Little Grassy Lake Campus, has grown to more than 3,100 acres of lakes, forests and hills used for outdoor experiential education programming of all kinds. Zip lines, a high ropes course, rock climbing, canoeing, and lodging facilities make the center a popular location for everything from corporate retreats to weddings, from environmental education programs and camps to therapeutic recreation. 

In addition, Freeberg, the first person in the nation to earn a doctorate in recreation, played an instrumental role in the creation of the Special Olympics.

Working on loan from SIU to the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, he worked with Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke and Eunice Kennedy Shriver to establish what was to become the Special Olympics. Now a worldwide phenomenon, the event is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and the festivities recently kicked off at Touch of Nature.  

A memorial plaque will also be installed at the Welcome Plaza in Freeberg’s honor.

Work to begin May 21

A May 21 project groundbreaking is anticipated with staff and apprentices from the Laborer’s International Union of North American contributing their expertise and skills to construct the plaza. LIUNA supports programs, camps and events at the facility in an ongoing basis.

The plaza will be located right at the entrance to Camp 2, at the “y” between Little Grassy Lodge and Freeberg Hall.

See sketches and purchase engraved markers online

An artist’s rendering of the Welcome Plaza project along with additional details and a downloadable purchase form for the engraved bricks and pavers is available online at Or, call 618/453-1121 or email to learn more.

Ceremony will celebrate completion

Touch of Nature Environmental Center will host a special ribbon-cutting ceremony later this year to celebrate the completion of the Welcome Plaza project.