« All News

“Doctors” In Residency

Two volunteers, Ellie Shunas and Lee Witkowski, holding a restoration tool
Ellie Shunas and Lee Witkowski.

Forest Preserves volunteers can often be spotted in plain sight. They’re out in the field cutting brush or collecting seed, monitoring trails or leading a craft at a nature center event. But there are also volunteers who work quietly behind the scenes whose contributions might not be so obvious. Two such volunteers are Ellie Shunas and Lee Witkowski.

Ellie and Lee hold various volunteer roles in the Preserves, but their love of working with their hands and knowledge of tools attracted them to a new role, Tool Doctor. Tool Doctor is a pilot program for the maintenance and repair of tools used in stewardship activities. Since February 2017, volunteers have put hundreds of broken bowsaws, loppers and fire pumps back into use, which also aligns with the FPCC’s efforts towards increased sustainability. It was even highlighted at a recent Conservation and Policy Council meeting.

Ellie, a valued bird monitor, stewardship volunteer, seed collector, brushpile burn boss and herbicide applicator, comes to the Volunteer Resource Center regularly to work on broken tools. “Years ago I used to work on my own car because it was a way to save money. I also worked in a factory and one of the things we did was modify tools,” says Ellie. She became a Tool Doctor because she wanted to repair the broken tools on the North Branch that she used herself. “Having tools that are actually repaired by the people who use them, that’s the key thing here. If you actually use the tools, you’re going to be a much more effective tool repair person, because you know exactly what needs to be done.”

For Lee Witkowski, working with tools is something he too has known all his life. He recalls, “As a boy my father taught me how to work with tools and my mother sent me to a woodcraft shop at a Chicago Park District. I work on my own cars and I’ve just been around tools all my life. It’s just experience.” When Lee isn’t teaching at Louis University or building Bluebird boxes, he works out of Sagawau’s workshop repairing tools. He says, “The opposite of satisfaction is frustration. So if someone gets a broken water pack, that volunteer gets frustrated. Will they come back? Maybe, but they haven’t had a great experience.”

“Tool Doctors” have been volunteering in the Preserves for decades, before this formal program was initiated. Kent Fuller, a long-time volunteer, has led efforts to keep North Branch Restoration Project tools in good working order. He even shared his repair expertise during our first Tool Doctor training session. Word has spread that Jeff McAndrews is also a champion in the Northwest, keeping tools well-maintained in that region.

But even with incredible volunteers, programs require high-level buy-in and collaboration to succeed. The Forest Preserves’ Resource Management Department continues to support the program and its volunteers by leading training sessions and answering questions about tool repair.

We hope that with continued collaboration, the Tool Doctor program can grow, and we can tout volunteers’ achievements as we move towards an even more sustainable next century in the Forest Preserves.

Do you work with volunteers who have gone above and beyond to repair, reduce, reuse and recycle in order to conserve our precious resources? Tell us about it! Maybe they’d be interested in joining our “practice”.