While schools around the state will remain closed for the rest of the school year to prevent further spread of COVID-19, students at multiple District 97 Oak Park elementary schools can look forward to getting back outside in the fall to plant native gardens, thanks to a new gardening grant program through West Cook Wild Ones.
The non-profit awarded grants to 14 different schools, faith communities, and other organizations throughout Cook County this year through its Garden for Nature program. The program aims to involve young people in gardening native plants and creating landscapes that provide habitat for pollinators, bees, butterflies and birds.
Stephanie Walquist, vice president of the group, said there is an urgency to start these gardens, as native gardens are an important way people can make a positive impact on the environment, as many pollinator species are in steep decline due to habitat loss. The Chicago area is an important place for migratory birds that fly thousands of miles north from South America each year and setting up native gardens provides a habitat for birds and other pollinators.
“One-quarter of bumble bees are at risk of extinction, and 40 percent of songbirds have declined since the 70s. These gardens working together can hopefully turn around the trend,” Walquist said.
Out of the 14 organizations selected for the grant, four are schools in Oak Park and River Forest. Percy Julian Middle School, The Children’s School, Longfellow Elementary School, Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School and Lincoln Elementary School were all selected for the grant.
Though schools will be closed through the 2019-20 school year, grant recipients from educational institutions in the area hope to begin planting this fall.
Michael Youngberg, a special education teacher at Percy Julian Middle School, organizes the school’s Green Team. Youngberg started the club as a grassroots effort at Percy Julian in 2016. He worked with students to start a garden project where a mud pit previously existed on Percy Julian’s campus. Youngberg and his students initially received money from Percy Julian’s Parent Teacher Organization, which helped to start a garden. However, the group quickly ran out of money due to the scope of the project.
Native plants cost more than most other garden plants, which is why the grants are so beneficial for the schools and other recipients. According to Youngberg, the grant arrived at the perfect time, and the Green Team plans to use their funds to purchase plants for native, butterfly and rain gardens.
Youngberg said working in the garden and on sustainability issues that affect the community is an opportunity both for service learning and career development for his students.
“They realize how much is out there and how they can create a career out of this and feel good about themselves every day. I talk not just about the environment, but also about their transition towards secondary education,” he said.
Rush Oak Park Hospital received one of the grants, which will be used to buy more native plants for the hospital’s healing garden. Colleen Chierici is a nurse at Rush and member of the hospital’s Green Team. She said along with attracting pollinators to the area, the healing native garden, which contains Switchgrass, New England Aster, Butterfly Weed, and Purple and Pale Coneflowers, serves as a place of respite for doctors and patients coming in and out of the building.
Chierici said the garden is part of the Green Team’s mission to educate staff and visitors about the connection between human and environmental health.
“[We are] raising awareness for the staff about the connection between human health and climate change, as well as the effect that healthcare systems can actually have on climate change.”