By Linda Card
Getting to the Blue Ridge Discovery Center (BRDC) is not difficult, but on the way it’s easy to ask, “Where is this place?” While it is remote, that’s the whole point. I recently spent an afternoon there and chatted with BRDC Executive Director Lisa Benish about BRDC’s mission and their new headquarters in Troutdale – the recently renovated Konnarock Training School training, originally built in 1925.
As Lisa shared, the BRDC’s mission is to introduce kids and adults to the world of the Blue Ridge Ecoregion through immersion into its natural assets. As their brochure states, “Our mission is to inspire curiosity, discovery, and stewardship through the wonders of the Blue Ridge.” Upon arrival at the center, I immediately felt awed and curious.
Located on the slopes of Mount Rogers, near the town of Konnarock in southern Smyth County, the focal point of the BRDC is the spacious building that housed the Konnarock Training School until 1959. Seeing the former school for the first time evoked a sincere “wow” from me; it is impressive! I looked closely at the exterior siding, wondering what it is, looking unlike any siding I have seen before. I learned it is native American Chestnut bark siding, and it is striking and beautiful. Over the years some has been replaced by poplar, since chestnuts succumbed to blight many years ago. The entire three-story building is covered with the bark siding, as well as a smaller building now known as The Cottage.
After entering the circular driveway and exiting my car, my next sensation was smelling the aromatic fragrances of all the wildflowers and native plants in the front garden. A tangle of yellow, blue, orange and purple blooms surrounds the central walkway to the front door. The porch is massive, with bench seating along the walls. It feels imposing and welcoming at the same time.
History & Mission
Visiting with Lisa Benish, she told me the BRDC started its work in 2008 in Grayson County when she was a volunteer. The BRDC’s efforts at that time centered on visiting schools and other gathering places to teach children about nature in the Blue Ridge Mountains. They traveled from town to town, reminiscent of itinerant preachers.
Said Lisa, “When we were asked ‘Where is the center?’ we just had to shrug and point to the trailer we used to haul all our teaching materials!”
Over the years, the BRDC expanded outreach to colleges and universities and increased their programming. Then, in 2017 everything changed. The Konnarock Retreat House – owners of the school and property at that time – donated it to the BRDC. They had owned the property since 2007 with the intent of completely restoring the building, but upon realizing the task was greater than anticipated, they turned it over to the BRDC, who willingly accepted the challenge.
Renovations continued in earnest with funding from several grants, fundraisers, donations and volunteer hours. By then, the property was added to the Virginia Landmark Registry, the National Register of Historic Places, and the List of Most Endangered Sites in Virginia. Listings on these sites enabled more funding, including from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, while prescribing exactly what may and may not be done during the renovation process.
“It was sometimes a challenge to adhere to their guidelines,” Lisa told me. “But we really didn’t want to change the interior anyway. We mainly needed to upgrade the bathrooms and the kitchen.”
After plenty of hand-wringing and sweat, the BRDC officially opened for their first event in May 2022.
Programs & Summer Camps
Today the BRDC is going strong. They host daytime and overnight school programs and summer camps for children aged 6 through 17. To date, all of these programs have been funded by grants and donations, allowing the BRDC to provide them at no cost to the students or their families.
“We have been fully booked for the month of September, mostly with school groups for day programs,” Lisa told me. “For overnight stays we have a capacity of 52 in the dorms on the second floor. We’d like them to stay for several days, but most just come for one night.”
In addition, the third floor holds three hotel-like rooms, including one with a kitchenette. These rooms are used by adults visiting the center.
“Among those are artists, scientists and researchers who come to work at the center,” Lisa said. “We also host four Naturalist Rallies during the year, and the members who attend may stay in the rooms.”
Visitors have come from Virginia Tech, Radford University, Eastern Tennessee State University, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and other institutions.
In addition to Lisa, the staff consists of a full-time program coordinator, who oversees all the educational programming, and three naturalist educators. Two more educators have been hired and will join the staff this fall. Lisa also hopes to hire a full-time cook to manage their modern, commercial-grade kitchen. Currently, BRDC staff prepares the meals and feeds all their guests in the large dining room just off the kitchen, with Lisa responsible for most of the cooking. The staff shares other jobs, including shopping, housekeeping, groundskeeping and running the gift shop.
The center is also available to rent for special occasions and is a distinctively different venue.
Added Lisa, “We recently hosted a family reunion and they had a great time. A good friend of ours has rented the house for her daughter’s wedding in October. We’ve also had birthdays, baby showers, anniversaries, and conferences. We’re open for everybody!”
The BRDC has great plans for the future.
“Right now, most of our funding is from grants, donations and memberships,” Lisa said. “Our school programs are considered ‘pilot programs’ and are fully funded. We hope to change that so that our programs will be included in the school system budgets for Smyth, Grayson and Carroll counties.
The BRDC collects fees for private and non-school events, which they hope will be more frequent. They also rely on memberships, which start at $25 for an individual and $40 for a family. They offer Preserver, Corporate and Lifetime memberships at higher rates.
With plans to expand the center, the BRDC has also acquired additional property adjacent to the schoolhouse and across the road. Plans include renovating a brick house to provide staff housing and another empty building near preserved wetland to house a visitor’s center.
When you visit the BRDC be sure to read the Timeline of events posted in the first-floor hallway. It is an amazing, detailed history of the schoolhouse and grounds through the years and includes interesting photos that paint a broader picture of the area.
The BRDC is a valuable resource for our area, originally built with purpose, and since renovated with dedication to its current mission. It’s clear to me that Lisa and her staff are devoted stewards of their corner of the Blue Ridge Ecoregion, and they plan to share their enthusiasm for many years to come.