Deer Grove holds a special place of honor in Forest Preserve District of Cook County history. The preserve encompasses the very first land acquired by the District, back in 1915. It comes as no surprise, then, that the site is maintained by a special group. The Deer Grove Natural Area Volunteers were all recognized for their hard work when site co-stewards Pete Jackson and Ron Vargason and volunteer Jackie Grom from Uplift Community High School were all named Steward of the Year at Friends of the Parks’ annual Volunteer and Public Service Awards last month.
Vargason and Jackson both credit a love of the natural world, established in childhood, for their current dedication to the preserves and say that a large part of the motivation for their stewardship is the opportunity to pass that love on to a new generation.
Friends of the Parks’ Mary Eileen Sullivan says that it was the Deer Grove West stewards’ partnership with Uplift Community High School, located in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, that particularly drew Friends’ attention. Jackie Grom, a science teacher at Uplift, and a group of her students officially adopted Deer Grove through the Adopt-A-Site litter clean-up program. Since then Grom and her students have visited the preserve regularly, not only to remove litter, but also to participate in restoration activities and to meet with stewards, volunteers and FPDCC ecologist Debbie Antlitz. It has turned their hands-on service learning experience into an exciting way to study nature and science. Sullivan says, “This is really a great success story of how urban kids learn about nature in the preserves.”
Vargason, who spent childhood summers exploring prairies and woodland areas near his grandparents’ farm in northern Michigan, cites Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods as a source of inspiration. “The book made me recognize a few years back that many of today’s children are denied those sorts of opportunities to develop a relationship with and love of the natural world. Today, welcoming city kids (and adults) to the woods and helping them get acquainted with some of the plants and animals that share our planet, as well as doing our best to leave natural areas for their generation and beyond, is my way of passing along some of the love I got from my grandmother.”
Jackson says that passion and a strong sense of personal responsibility have fueled all his years of service, from his career at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to the last 15 years at Deer Grove West. “I try to share that passion with the other volunteers,” he says. “ I also recall the incredible surge in motivation I felt after becoming a steward; which told me that encouraging others to take ownership was the way to develop a core of truly dedicated volunteers. I am always looking for volunteers who want to take on responsibility, to stake their claim.
Jackson and Vargason both acknowledge that the restoration at Deer Grove West is a successful work-in-progress because they lead a core group of volunteers who have indeed staked their claim to the site and dedicate themselves wholeheartedly. “This is really about a group of people,” says Jackson, “not just about us stewards. The Deer Grove Natural Areas Volunteers are a great group of people. The Friends of the Parks award belongs to them. I am happy for all of our volunteers that they are receiving their due.”