Manolo Avalos, 16 and a sophomore at Oak Park and River Forest High School, holds up a bag of food waste. Avalos, a member of the school’s environmental club, is one of many who have helped measure food waste. (Courtesy of OPRF)

For years, Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 has worked to make its over century-old building more sustainable and environmentally friendly. But this year, the district decided to take another step and launch the Sustainability Policy Committee, bringing together school administrators, students and community partners at the table. 

Sophie Ball and Manolo Avalos are two OPRF students who have a seat at that table and recently helped create a plan for the district’s next steps in going green. Ball, 17, and Avalos, 16, said they suggested the district be more thoughtful about hiring construction companies for renovation projects and set renewable energy goals. 

Ball, a senior at OPRF and a member of the school environmental club, said it’s important for district staff to ask building contractors questions, including their experience in working on energy efficient projects or where they source or purchase their materials. Questions like those, she said, make all the difference in the long run. Ball and Avalos told Wednesday Journal that they leaned on Gary Cuneen, executive director of Seven Generations Ahead (SGA), for ideas and guidance, looking closely at what other local school districts or park districts have done to become more environmentally conscious and responsible. 

“Me, Manolo and Gary got together and compiled a list of examples,” said Ball who first met Cuneen through SGA’s youth-led branch, It’s Our Future. Together, she said, they drafted a plan and shared it with district administrators. That plan may be finalized this summer. 

Ron Anderson, executive director of operations at OPRF, spoke more about the district’s partnership with Cuneen and the myriad of sustainability efforts that have taken place over the years at the high school. 

“We want to be a trendsetter,” Anderson said, adding he often turns to Cuneen for feedback on what the district could do to improve. “We want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can do to make sure we’re sustainable.” 

From retrofitting light fixtures or powering down the vending machines when not in use, Anderson said those acts might seem small, but they are impactful. 

Anderson said the district also leans on the school environmental club where students such as Ball and Avalos continue their mission to make OPRF a better place. 

The environmental club recently released its annual report, documenting its “sustainable habits,” including working with school and cafeteria staff to help dispose of lunchroom waste properly and educating faculty and students on what items to consider as trash or saved for compost. 

The garden beds outside OPRF. (Courtesy of OPRF)

Students in the club also weeded the garden beds outside OPRF last fall and plan to plant native plants in the space next month. Native plants are known to attract pollinators like bees and butterflies, birds and insects, the club wrote in its report. Club members have also volunteered to clean up Schiller Woods, removing invasive plant species, and are brainstorming plans to create events at the nearby Thatcher Woods in River Forest for students. More recently, the environmental club held a thrift store weekend at the school’s gym where faculty, staff, students and community members were encouraged to donate and sell their gently used clothes. Clothes leftover from the sale would be sent to the Chicago Textile Recycling warehouse in Hillside. 

Anderson reiterated that these simple acts are the vital steps to starting and maintaining the changes, and the initiatives can only grow from here. 

When asked what advice Anderson, Ball and Avalos had for those interested in going green, the three remained candid: Pick one thing and do it – and don’t give up.  

“You can’t do it all at one time. You should have a plan,” Anderson said.

OPRF students help clean up a local forest preserve. (Courtesy of OPRF)

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