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Nurtured in Nature


Students from IU School of Medicine–Evansville spread mulch in early August at the Evansville Psychiatric Children&#8217;s Center.

WHEN AARON COSTLOW was told that, somewhere in the tree line behind the Evansville Psychiatric Children’s Center, the woods had consumed a walking trail, he thought the facility’s residents were missing out on an essential joy of childhood, and one with healing power.

“I loved playing outside as a kid. I loved building forts, messing around creeks,” he said. “Those are things these kids don’t always get to experience.” 

Costlow, a third-year student at Indiana University School of Medicine—Evansville, encountered the children at the facility earlier this year as part of a psychiatric clerkship. Over the course of his short stint, he conceived the idea for a plan to give the woods back to the kids. “I wished I could give them that—let them be in nature, let them learn new things, let them be kids,” he said.

Opened in 1969, the center is Indiana’s only residential psychiatric facility for children. It’s persisted despite no budget increases in the last two decades. Nearly 80 percent of its patients have experienced some form of neglect, physical abuse, or sexual trauma. Some were locked in closets for hours. Others were molested by relatives and told it was normal. Still others were planted in front of TVs and left alone for hours, seemingly forgotten.

The result is children with myriad issues, but the center prides itself on avoiding the use of physical restraints or heavy-duty antipsychotic medications. Today, the 28-bed facility is under the medical direction of Shannon Jones, MD, a clinical faculty member for IU School of Medicine–Evansville. She and her staff aim to help their patients swap out unhealthy behaviors for acceptable ones.

Children earn points for displaying positive social skills, which they can later exchange for privileges. Many of them are outdoors. They can ride a horse, scale a climbing wall, splash in a pool or ride a bike. For over a decade, Jones hoped to resurrect another activity: hikes along a nature trail. 

When Costlow arrived, he began by helping the kids complete simple worksheets. He played basketball with them. Soon, one boy started gravitating into his orbit, even pulling him aside to confide a secret: his favorite color was pink. The next day, Costlow knotted a pink tie around his neck. “It’s my favorite color, too,” he told the boy.

After Costlow heard Jones mention her desire for the trail, he began marshaling forces to get the job done. He mentioned it to Amber Embrey, a staff member at the School of Medicine, who took a look at the terrain and saw the job in front of them. “There was a ton of work,” Embrey said. “It hadn’t been touched in years. The woods had reclaimed it.”

Embrey found a tree service willing to help. She and her husband, Nathan, tapped some friends with heavy equipment. Costlow found peers willing to put in some work. Over a stretch of five days, the group blazed a trail that winds through a leafy canopy, hugs the curves of a small gully and passes under a fallen tree with a trunk that rises to form a natural archway.

“Everything just fell into place,” Embrey said. 

The trail will be put to good use. On the day it was completed this summer, the children went on a scavenger hunt. Such activities, including a safari for stuffed animals hidden among the brush, improve their observational skills. 

“There are numerous ways it fits in,” Jones said. “And we’re excited to find ways to stir their imagination.”