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People of the Preserves: February 2019

The Forest Preserves boasts a large network of volunteers doing incredible work all across the County like restoring habitat, monitoring plant and animal populations, patrolling our trails, supporting special events and so much more. Though many volunteers fly solo, like Trail Watch volunteers, or work in small groups, like stewardship volunteers, each individual belongs to this larger, like-minded community of people who love nature and care for the Preserves.

Carmen Holmes outside at a volunteer workday
Photo by Kris DaPra.

Carmen Holmes

“I moved to Harvey, Illinois in 1992. My property kind of backs up to a church whose parking lot sort of backs up to a forest preserve on the Thornton Ridge side. I was very intrigued because I used to hear a lot of buzzing outside, so one day I decided to walk through the woods, cross over the Little Calumet River, and I was right in Kickapoo [Woods]. I found an airstrip there and the buzzing was the remote controlled planes being flown over there. I was so intrigued with the airplanes that I decided to join the Chicago Model Masters, and I learned to fly remote controlled aircrafts. Because so many of the novices and newbies like myself would lose the aircrafts, I would be the one who wouldn’t mind walking into the woods to try and locate them. They’re very expensive. If you couldn’t get the wooden part back, at least you could get the motor because you could rebuild if you got your motor back. And so that’s how I got started.

“When I retired, I got involved with a group of senior people and they started a 5am walking club. Then I found out there were organizations that would bring children out to learn about nature and so I started to learn with the children. I met a guy named Cleve who unofficially watches the tadpoles turn into frogs. I met a group of people who were from Friends of the Chicago River so I got involved with them as far as cleaning up that end of the river and canoeing and kayaking which I’ve learned to do.

“I attended workdays and started learning about the trees and understanding how the river flows, because it flows right through the neighborhood and I could easily cross it. We started talking about the prairies and how to restore them and that’s when I met June Webb and got involved with Master Naturalist and Master Gardener. I remember when I first started coming out to Kickapoo, I would take my chair and sit into an area that was kind of encompassed; you really couldn’t see the prairie because there were so many trees and so much buckthorn. Now the prairie is beautiful. We have over 200-300 varieties of plants growing there.

“When I first came out to Whistler [Woods] this whole area was just covered but we’ve done so much work all the way down to the water. We have a lot of nice things here as far as plants and vegetation. I spend about 75% of my time here now. I come out for Trail Watch at least once a week. In the winter if I don’t get out and walk, I’ll at least come by to make sure the parking lot has been plowed. I do some walking along the trail especially close to dusk to make sure there’s nothing going on. A lot of different people from the community are using the preserves now in different ways and I’m happy to show them what we have to offer in the forest preserves.

“People need to get out here. Nature helps to ground you. It helps you to feel what’s going on within you. When you get out among it, you can literally lose any of the things that are going on with you. My area is considered a desert area as far as food, as far as resources. And you hear that all the time. But nature provides for us. If you come out, if you just come out, you will find that you can lose yourself surrounded by the clean air, the greenery or even by a winter landscape like this. It will ground you, which makes you more emotionally sound, which makes you more humane.”

Ron Rodriguez outside at a volunteer workday
Photo by Kris DaPra.

Ron Rodriguez

“My son was in third grade when we started volunteering at Orland Grassland. Then we heard about workdays around here and my son, who is now in high school, loved the diversity of the group here so we’ve been coming back ever since.  

“I’m now a site steward here at Whistler [Woods] until June. I lead brush pile burns, I do the Trail Watch program, and I come out here with CIMBY students. CIMBY is Calumet in My Back Yard, a program where high school students throughout the Southside come to the preserves and have a workday. Their workday is about three to four hours and so we’ll have a brush pile for half the group, while the other half goes out to do nature observations and soil testing throughout the area, and then we switch off. We also try to have a lunch for them like homemade tamales and snacks, and we always have s’mores. Food is a great motivator for anybody!

“Some of these students are getting community service hours for school, but it’s also an educational program. We get a lot of students who have never been in a forest preserve. They come here for family picnics but they don’t venture past the parking lots. We have a group of students from a school farther south who are actually from Puerto Rico so they have been working here and at Dan Ryan Woods. They were transferred up here after the hurricane so they can finish their high school education because most of their schools got torn up in the rural areas. There are a lot of inspiring moments with students out here.

“During my workdays, I want these kids to be safe, but I also want them to be children. You’ve got to let them have an adventure. You can’t just tell a child ‘Here’s the woods’ and be out here and not be adventurous. We had one group come out here, a very nice teacher with some younger students, probably 3rd grade. The students wanted to go off the trail to see the plants and stuff, and she didn’t want them to. She didn’t want them to get dirty. It could have been a better experience for the children if she had said, ‘It’s ok! Get a little dirty!’.”

Inspired by the photo blog Humans of New York, Kris DaPra and Joanna Huyck of the Volunteer Resources team will be working together to introduce you to your fellow volunteers all throughout 2019. You’ll get to know the names and faces of the people (like you) without whom the preserves could simply not exist. We hope that you’ll enjoy this ongoing project, and we look forward to interviewing YOU at an upcoming workday, on your monitoring route, during your Trail Watch patrol or anywhere else you make a difference. Thank you for being a volunteer!