The Atlanta BeltLine is so much more than trails and parks, and communicating that reality is essential for the project to achieve all its program objectives. It encompasses economic development, transit and connectivity, equity of opportunity, affordable housing, job creation, neighborhood revitalization, health and wellness, and so much more. This month, we highlight the work of Jenny Odom, who has spent much of her professional life sharing her passion for the BeltLine story and, as Communications and Media Relations Manager, helps bring clarity about the project to everyone.
Jenny Odom is a native Atlantan who grew up near the future site of the Eastside Trail. As a kid, Jenny would often walk with friends to movies at the Midtown Promenade. She recalls taking note of the dusty and dingy rail line behind the theater but had no idea what wonderful possibilities it would soon offer.
After graduating from Druid Hills High School, Jenny attended Washington University in St. Louis on a ROTC scholarship and pursued a degree in graphic design. In addition to the money that allowed her to attend college, she enjoyed the comradery of ROTC and the fact the program provided structure and gave her a greater appreciation for the importance of teamwork to achieve objectives.
Jenny could not anticipate the events that would follow graduation and the start of a four-year military commitment. Like everyone, her world turned upside down after September 11, 2001. Within months, Jenny was a transportation corps officer based in Germany and it was clear this would be a prolonged military engagement. In March 2003, Jenny was deployed to provide combat service support in Iraq. It was common to hear sirens warning of incoming SCUD missiles, so Jenny and her platoon-mates would don chemical weapons gear and shelter in 40-foot containers buried in the sand. Jenny says, “I was 23-years-old, sitting in a hole in the ground in the desert, and thinking, less than a year ago, I was finishing my senior thesis for a Bachelor in Fine Arts.” For nine months, she drove supply trucks across southern Iraq to bring water, food, and equipment to U.S. and coalition forces.
She returned to Germany and served as a rear detachment commander, rising to the rank of Captain. Jenny says the Middle East deployment was tough, but she appreciated being stationed in Germany for the remainder of her service, enabling her to travel extensively around Europe. She found her military service turned her into a morning person and instilled in her an enduring love of running.
In 2006, returned to Atlanta and settled in Decatur. She worked briefly in real estate and her father began showing her news articles and telling her about the BeltLine project, which was still in its infancy at the time. Jenny relished the idea of a project that created connections and common spaces for everyone to enjoy. Soon, she was a BeltLine volunteer, setting up booths at festivals to explain the project, show where it was happening, and encourage people to get involved. She became a member of the original Art on the Atlanta BeltLine committee and created social media channels to promote the exhibition in its earliest days. During this period, she went on a first date with her future husband, Zack, at the first-ever Atlanta BeltLine bike ride. A front-page AJC article about the event included a photo that featured Zack but left Jenny out!
After hundreds of volunteer hours, often as a volunteer team leader for clean-up days, she was hired as Communications Coordinator for Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. in 2012. It was also the year the Eastside Trail opened as the first trail segment built in the old rail corridor and the trail was an instant hit. She says, “seeing how that public space changed and how it could bring people together was incredible. It used to divide Atlantans and divide neighborhoods, and now it unites the community and brings people from all over.”
Jenny now works as Communications & Media Relations Manager and says the most fun part of her job is telling the stories of life on the BeltLine. She still gets excited sharing “the day-to-day human element and talking about how the BeltLine has positively impacted people.” She marvels at the progress but acknowledges hurdles remain. “One big task is communicating all we do. The BeltLine is not just transit, trails, and parks. Other aspects include affordable housing, economic development, job creation, and equity of opportunity. We celebrate our milestones, but we recognize we have a long way to go.” One of her most important roles is making sure people know, “everyone who works on this project cares deeply about it and wants the BeltLine to serve the needs of all Atlantans.”
Over the years, Jenny has fielded tough questions about funding shortfalls, project delays, and much more. A more difficult aspect of her job recently was the ongoing management of messaging related to Covid. In 2020, Jenny’s team was tasked with discouraging recreational use of the BeltLine to make it available for its primary purpose as a transit corridor for people to get to/from work and have access to medical facilities, grocery stores, pharmacies, etc. She says, “in all my years at the BeltLine, it was the only time we were telling people to go home.” Signage along the corridor encouraged masking and social distancing and urged people to avoid the trail. She says it was a balancing act because people also desperately needed a place to get out and exercise safely. She says, “the BeltLine was an outlet for many people, and we wanted to respect that need as well. But we did achieve our goal of reducing the number of people on the trails during an incredibly difficult time.”
Jenny continues to spend her days extolling the virtues of the BeltLine and providing important updates on programs and progress. She remains an avid runner when she has free time and says that’s a precious commodity now that she is the mother of two young children. She often takes her kids to the splash pad at Historic Fourth Ward Park and says one of her personal favorite spots on the corridor is the unpaved wooded segment that extends north by Piedmont Park. She and her husband, Zack, live in Decatur with their two children.