When Leanna Bird was in college, she got a summer job leading volunteer teams of high school students building and restoring trails in Allegheny County parks.
“It was kind of like a dream job for me at the time,” Bird said.
The experience was a natural for the young woman who was already an avid trail user.
Her father is an avid runner and encouraged Bird to take up distance running. The two made it a tradition to complete the 34-mile Rachel Carson Trail Challenge north of Pittsburgh.
She was working for the Student Conservation Association, a 60-year-old nonprofit modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps that put people to work during the Great Depression.
The economic downturn in 2008 and 2009 eliminated her job, so Bird went on to complete her master’s degree in English education at the University of Pittsburgh and taught middle school English for a while.
But she found herself looking for ways to introduce activities and outdoor education for her English classes.
“Life kept trying to bring me back to trails and the outdoors,” the 31-year-old Upper Yoder Township woman said. “That’s really where my heart lies.”
She and her husband moved to the region a few years ago and she started volunteering with local groups interested in the region’s trails, activity and economic development. The volunteer work helped lead to her current job as program and communications coordinator at Cambria County Conservation and Recreation Authority. One of the organization’s functions is to develop and oversee the county’s recreation trails.
“I came onto the job at a really exciting time,” Bird said. “It was right when things were moving with the Ehrenfeld coal refuse pile cleanup.
“That brought national attention.”
The Ghost Town Trail extension was in the planning stages and other projects were being rolled out.
“A lot of things were on the brink of happening with the trails here in Cambria County,” she said.
Despite taking some time off for the birth of her son, Bird has accomplished much for the authority.
Tapping into the network of organizations from her days as a volunteer, Bird launched the Friends of the Trails program to allow volunteers to contribute the trail upkeep, maintenance and improvements.
She started the Cambria County Trail Series, which includes the Path of the Flood race, James Mayer Riverswalk Trail family fun run and the grueling 32-mile Ghost Town Trail Challenge.
The dawn-to-dusk Ghost Town Trail Challenge ultra-marathon is held in June near the longest day of the year.
It was modeled after the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge and also includes 16- and 7-mile options.
This year, the Ghost Town Trail event had its first wheelchair participant.
“It left me speechless to hear her story,” Bird said, adding that the authority has a goal to encourage more nontraditional trail users. Those would include the disabled and elderly.
Bird continues to enter distance running events. This year she and her husband ran five marathons, including the Erie Marathon. In one her time of 3 hours, 26 minutes, 44 seconds helped her reach a life goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon.
She and her husband ran together for the first 20 miles of the 26-mile race before she kicked it up a notch for the finish. She give him credit for setting the pace to help her beat the qualifying time of 3:35:00. She will be running in the Boston Marathon next year.
“I couldn’t have done it without my husband, that’s for sure,” Bird said. “We trained together.
Beyond running and trail promotion, Bird says she wants her work to inspire others to achieve more.
“I really want to empower young people and women,” she said. “I want to encourage them – especially women – to take on leadership roles in the region.”