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On a brisk April morning, Dyrell Williams, 17, grabbed a shovel and started to dig. He carefully scooped away the dry earth around a small plant. To an untrained eye, the plant seemed unimportant–more like a stick–but Dyrell knows it will one day grow into a massive tree. He reached down and gently pulled the baby oak free, its fragile roots intact.
Dyrell is a member of the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a nation-wide not-for-profit organization that engages high school and college-aged youth in environmental and conservation projects. He spends his Saturdays working alongside other high school students from the Little Village and North Lawndale neighborhoods to help protect the environment.
Dyrell and the other volunteers carefully excavated baby oaks, yucca, milkweed and onions along the Ravenswood Metra line on April 2.
An expansion to the line gave these native plants a death sentence, but SCA, Friends of the Parks (FOTP) and the American Indian Center (AIC) saved the plants from imminent destruction. The groups transplanted the native plant material to the Dunning Read Conservation Area.
The volunteers gathered at around 10 a.m. at the AIC. A car was loaded up with shovels, garbage bags, buckets and tarps. Then the group made the short walk to the Ravenswood Metra line.
They divided into teams, each focusing on a different native plant. The students laughed and chatted while they carefully removed plants marked by orange flags. After all the plants had been unearthed and readied for transport, the volunteers bused over to the Dunning Read site.
Eli Suzukovich, an organizer of the conservation project and coordinator at the AIC, oversaw the operation. The Dunning Read site provided a space to salvage the plants along the Metra line, Suzukovich explained.
The transplant would also benefit the area. Suzukovich said the site has several damaging invasive species and the native plants would help to restore the area.
“Dunning needs to be repopulated and diversified as far as its plants,” he said.
Dunning Read is different because it isn’t park or forest preserve land, said Mary Eilleen Sullivan, director of volunteers at Friends of the Parks FOTP. It is land owned by the state, but the community, FOTP and other organizations, such as the AIC or Wright College, manage it.
FOTP, a non-profit parks advocacy organization, was instrumental in organizing the Dunning Read conservation project.
“[Friends of the Parks] mission is to protect and improve the parks and forest preserves in Chicago for all citizens,” Sullivan said.
FOTP carries out its mission through environment education, building communities and volunteer projects. The group works on advisory councils with local parks to help maintain or add to parks programming. FOTP also does policy work by looking at a park or forest preserve district’s budget.
FOTP helped to make the Dunning Read Conservation Area public access. At one time the land was going to be sold to the City of Chicago, which planned to build a box store at the site. Sullivan said the community fought against this plan, asking state legislators to abandon the project. This was when FOTP became involved. FOTP helped write the Conservation Easement, which said nothing would be built on the Dunning Read land.
The organization also works with Chicago public schools as a service-learning partner, which allows schools to teach classes about invasive species and trail maintenance at Dunning Read.
Once the volunteers reached the Dunning Read site, they again divided into teams. The first team was assigned to replanting the yucca in the parking lot medians. It was a difficult job due to rocks in the soil.
The second group planted the oaks and milkweed in an open field. Samuel Vergara Jr., a Program Manager at SCA, said this would provide the plants with the sunlight they need to grow.
The last team went with Suzukovich into the woods to replant the onions and a few wild raspberries. He pointed out a coyote’s den to the volunteers with deer bones lying nearby. It was important to leave the bones undisturbed, Suzukovich said, to encourage the coyote to stay in the area.
By the end of the conservation project, the day had grown colder and storm clouds loomed in the distance. Hours of physical labor left the volunteers tired but satisfied with the conservation work they had done.
When asked why he liked working at SCA, Dyrell said it’s about “being able to have fun and help the environment at the same time.”
The Dunning Read conservation project was just one effort on the part of organizations like the SCA to improve green space in Chicago. For more information on volunteer projects, visit the Friends of the Parks website at fotp.org.