My students and I first went to Deer Grove Forest Preserve for a habitat restoration workday in March 2011 as part of a unit on biodiversity. I knew that it was going to be a good day when one of my students walked off the bus and exclaimed, “I want to live here!” as she took in the forest that surrounded her. We walked from the bus and into a circle where the steward, Pete Jackson, introduced us to the site. When we walked through the woods and arrived at the site that we would work at that day, Pete and all of his volunteers immediately opened their arms to our students. They helped them figure out how to best use the tools, directed them to locations that would be good to work, and answered questions while at the same time giving them the space to enjoy the outdoors on their own. That day as I watched my students, I saw them engaged in a way that I had never seen before, and I knew that this had to become a part of our regular experience at Uplift Community High School.
That summer, I worked with Cassie Hatzfeld to adopt the Deer Grove site through the Cook County Forest Preserve’s Adopt-a-Site program. We returned that fall and many times since to help restore the natural habitat at Deer Grove. Throughout this time, both Cassie and Pete have been a tremendous support to both my students and me. Throughout the experiences that they helped to foster, I have seen my students – many of whom come from difficult backgrounds and rough neighborhoods – act like true children as they explored the outdoors. Students that were usually concerned with acting cool or preoccupied with text messages were suddenly giggling and getting themselves dirty as they jumped over creeks and got on their knees to investigate a bug. Students that I could not get to work in class worked for hours straight cutting down invasive trees and hauling them to burn piles. Students that rarely seemed to observe the world around them and almost never asked questions couldn’t take their eyes off the creatures that lived in small ponds while questions flew from their mouths as their minds filled with curiosity.
These experiences at Deer Grove have been invaluable for my students. We are thankful for the program and the bus reimbursements that have allowed for the repeated visits that have enabled my students not only to experience, but develop a relationship with, the outdoors. I am only in my third year at Chicago Public Schools, but it has been enough to know that – despite the best intentions – many programs do not work. This program does, and we are grateful for your continued support.
Earth Science Teacher
Uplift Community High School