Leading a sedentary lifestyle has never been on Donna Russert’s list of things to do with her time.

Service to her community is paramount for Russert and her time, however.

The New Jersey native shares her love of nature and the outdoors through her new business, Outdoor Learning Initiative, which provides and facilitates outdoor, adventure and citizen science programs for area groups.

“This is my brainchild,” Russert, 57, said. “It’s a company I started a few months ago (in January), and took five months to get off the ground.”

Russert earned her credentials in 2017 as a Tennessee state-certified naturalist from the Bays Mountain Chapter of the Tennessee Naturalist Program. She is an interpretive naturalist, sharing her knowledge, experience, and insight about a specific area, in this case, Panther Creek Park, or what she calls her “home park.”

As the title of the position states, Russert interprets nature for the uninitiated.

“I’m motivated. I didn’t really want to work for someone else (at this point of my life),” she said.

Outdoor Learning Initiative is a community-funded business that allows Russert to take groups on kayaking excursions, leading hiking trips, including a geology hike at Panther Creek Park. Russert also runs a firestarter program teaching hikers to start fires without the benefit of a disposable lighter found at every convenience store. She also teaches a “leave no trace” class, as well as a self-defense class, both teaching safety on the trail. She has also run programs for Healthier Hamblen, a local movement promoting small changes leading to healthier decisions.

Groups heading to Outdoor Learning Initiative have their choice of three options they could center their trips around. Option No. 1 is geared to groups of youth or adults, including church groups, boy scout troops and other clubs wanting to participate in a guided learning experience with lots of hands-on field work and actual lab time as well. 

Option No. 2 is also a citizen science component, consisting of areas of scientific interest such as forest, bird, bee, astronomy and weather watch.

The final option is made for groups as little as two people: the outdoor adventure component. In this component, people can go on supervised hikes, kayaking, camping and survival lessons – and much more.

All of Russert’s classes are free of charge, sponsored by local businesses. Around May, she started to launch the business and seek sponsors who were interested in helping the community succeed.

“When I get to sit down with a sponsor, I just let the program speak for itself – and let the chips fall where they may,” she said.

For $125, Russert says she can lead a group of 20 to 30 hikers – and charge nothing for the services. Sponsors generally pledge $200. Sponsors will later receive two scholarships of $250 to use in the community however they wish.

Russert said one donor gave both scholarships to a Jefferson County school to promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM, programs.

“(Seeking sponsors) is not incredibly hard,” Russert said. “It’s the immense value of being a sponsor in the community.

“It’s a win-win situation.”

Russert’s talents for drawing sponsors and dealing with the community are derived from a pair of previous endeavors in her native state. She adopted business techniques from 20 years of owning a market research firm, Survey Services Incorporated.

“I have great sponsors, so I don’t have to charge anything (for the services),” she said. “I’ve just trusted the Lord to guide me in my decisions.”

Russert learned patience from owning a martial arts studio specializing in Chinese Shaolin called Phoenix Academy of Martial Arts, where she served as a situ, or lead instructor. Widowed two-and-a half years ago, she hasn’t allowed herself to slow down, continuing to maintain the property she and her husband purchased when they relocated to Tennessee five years ago.

“I wanted to use my gifts and my talents the way the Lord made me to do it,” she said. “I wanted to glorify God, and that’s how He built me to (create Outdoor Learning Initiative).”

Russert said her experience and her faith allow her to live an unrestrained life.

“My life is meant to work in the community and minister to the world in a way that doesn’t confine me into one thing,” she said.