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Distinguished Dozen: Tommy Safranek strives to make sure trails are for everyone

Tommy Safranek was late the first time he met Allie Hill in early January 2020.

He’d been on his way to a Three Notched Trail planning group meeting when the car in front of him got stuck in the snow. Safranek got out of his own car and dug the person out before continuing to the meeting.

“When somebody needs something, he just jumps in,” said Hill, who also works with Safranek as a board member on the Rivanna Trails Foundation.

Community support is what made Safranek passionate about trails. In 2007, he hiked the Appalachian Trail and met “trail angels,” people who will give hikers a place to rest or a ride into town.

“You just meet a ton of awesome people,” Safranek said. “When I was working for the park service, I was getting paid to work with these volunteers and I was always blown away by their dedication and hard work, that these people are volunteering their time.”

Since he and his family moved to Charlottesville in 2019, he’s strived to make sure that the trail community includes more than the predominantly older, white male crowd. Charlottesville’s network of trails pushed Safranek and his wife to move here.

“Trails strengthen communities by bringing us together. If every city had a Rivanna Trails Foundation, they would be healthier and happier,” Safranek said.

As part of that effort to make trails more accessible, Safranek worked to create signs along all 20 miles of the Rivanna Trail. The trail weaves in and out of green spaces and more developed areas, which can be confusing for anyone unfamiliar with it.

“To get people to feel comfortable, they need to have signage,” Safranek said. So he created hundreds of new signs to do just that.

“If somebody wants to get out there, they don’t have to have a private tour of a [Rivanna Trails Foundation] board member who knows the space,” Hill said. “they can do it on their own and not get lost.”

That means that the trail-curious but inexperienced—say, a family with young kids—can explore the trail system safely, knowing that they won’t stray too far from their parked car.

For Safranek, getting people involved means showing people what they might have been missing out on. In the fall, he pitched in with Loop de Ville, the trail foundation’s annual festival to celebrate the Rivanna Trail.

In earlier years, “you had to be a board member to really know about,” the 20-mile hike, Safranek said.

“The idea is to reach people to join the hike who might be too intimidated to do the hike by themselves, who might not feel safe doing the hike by themselves,” Safranek said.

He and others on the Rivanna Trails Foundation reimagined the event as a place where hikers, runners, cyclists and stroller-pushers could all enjoy the trails. It went from a one-day event to a weekend-long festival that included a concert. Loop de Ville had more than 200 people to sign up to participate in 2022—previously, about 50 people participated.

“Most places don’t have this,” Safranek said. “We need reminding how unique and awesome it is.”

Since moving to Charlottesville, Safranek has been a stay-at-home dad, ferrying his kids to school, coaching soccer and working on getting his teaching license, which he earned in early December. He’s been approved to teach social studies and is currently applying for jobs. He hopes to connect his love of history with his love of trails.

He worked for the parks in Tennessee and Kentucky, where he could see old coal mining camps and railroad tracks. His work on the proposed Three Notched Trail, a 25-mile route that would connect Charlottesville, Ivy, Crozet and Afton.

“I just always thought it was cool,” Safranek said. He hopes his future students feel the same.


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