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Despite bugs, teens tout jobs with Cook County’s Forest Preserve Experience
Friday, July 29, 2022 Chicago Tribune by Bill Jones
Brandy Voles holds a branch as it is being cut during a Forest Preserve Experience work day in July at Joe Orr Woods in Chicago Heights. (Bill Jones / Daily Southtown)
Brandy Voles has been enjoying her first job this summer as part of Cook County’s Forest Preserve Experience.
“It’s fun, something to do,” Voles said. “Before this, I was just sitting in the house all day, being bored.”
But Voles, 14, said despite enjoying the job and working with fun, nice people at Joe Orr Woods in Chicago Heights, there’s been one thing about the program she does not love.
“The bugs,” she said. “I hate bugs. If you want to come here, make sure you have lots of bug spray — and thick clothes, so you don’t get scratched up.”
Fredrick Champion-Jordan concurred about the bugs, and added that handling a bow saw to cut down small trees can be hard. But like Voles, he was working with a good group of people, getting out of the house more and collecting a paycheck thanks to the Forest Preserve Experience. The program offers five weeks of summer employment in the forest preserves to high school students whose families are in public housing or using vouchers from the Housing Authority of Cook County.
“It’s been really nice; I like it,” Champion-Jordan said. “I like looking at nature. I like to see new things and try to identify plants like poison ivy and oak.”
The Forest Preserve Experience started in 2016. This year, it brought in approximately 110 youths, with roughly a third of them returning from prior years, according to Friends of the Forest Preserves program manager Hannah Miller. All of the assistant crew leaders are people who have participated in the program in the past and returned, though they are not all necessarily looking to get into the environmental field.
“A lot of them come back because they enjoy the program, meeting new people and the experience,” Miller said.
This summer’s program started July 5 with an orientation at Wampum Lake in Thornton. It marked the first time since 2019 that all participants came together in one location for opening day. Since then, participants have been doing restoration work from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays at nine sites across the county, using hand tools to remove invasive shrubs in preserves such as Joe Orr Woods and King’s Grove near Steger. Crew leaders later use herbicide on what is left.
“It’s allowing light to reach the floor of the woods,” Miller explained. “A lot of it’s a thick brush, so sunlight can’t reach down. We’re opening the area and allowing natives to come through and thrive.”
Alice Brandon, resource programming manager for the Forest Preserves, said organizers pick preserves based on two major considerations.
“They’re going to do important work no matter where they are,” Brandon said. “We need help everywhere. But we have to be at a site where there’s a picnic shelter. That’s a safety issue. Then, where they live. We don’t want them to have to drive very far or not get to their pickup location.”
The district manages almost 70,000 acres total of natural areas in Cook County. And several Conservation Corps programs, including the Forest Preserve Experience, help maintain them. While staff does work beyond the picnic groves to take care of plants and animals, there are only roughly 40 employees doing actual restoration, according to Brandon.
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“Each would be dealing with over 1,200 acres,” Brandon said. “It would be physically impossible. So having crews like this makes all the difference.”
Saniyah Glover, 14, said she joined the Forest Preserve Experience this year just because it was “something to do for the summer.” It has meant getting outdoors more and experiencing new things. It has been “going well so far,” Glover added.
Brandon said the main goal of the program is actually reaching youths in low-income families to give them enrichment activities to make for a rewarding summer. In addition to the work, participants are exposed to outdoor activities such as hiking, canoeing and opportunities to interact with wildlife such as turtles before graduation Aug. 4.
“We’re not only recruiting kids that have bought into this as something they want to do as a career,” Brandon said. “It’s more than that. We want youth doing something positive and productive.”
The Forest Preserve Experience is a collaborative program put together by the Cook County Board, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Housing Authority of Cook County, Friends of the Forest Preserves, Forest Preserve Foundation and Cook County Bureau of Economic Development, the last of which was integral to expanding the program through American Rescue Plan dollars, according to Brandon. The program does not work without grants and philanthropy, and partners such as Friends of the Forest Preserves consistently help with the Conservation Corps programs while also bringing money to the table.
“We want to be using the taxpayer dollars wisely, so not all money comes from the forest preserves,” Brandon said. “It’s a true partnership with Friends of the Forest Preserves.”
Bill Jones is a freelance reporter for the Daily Southtown.