Volunteering at Dunning Read Forest Preserve

It was 104-degrees on the fifth of July and there I was….covered in dirt, sweating profusely, and pulling weeds.

You can’t be a nature lover without giving back to nature from time to time. Although I admittedly don’t make the time to volunteer as much as I should, putting in quality time with the environment is important to me.

It was a holiday weekend and I had the day off of work, so I signed up to volunteer at the 23-acre Dunning Reed Forest Preserve on the Northwest side of Chicago. I read about the need for volunteers in this preserve in a monthly REI newsletter. Finding environmental volunteer opportunities in the city of Chicago can be hard to come by, so these REI newsletters have definitely pointed me in the right direction a few times.

While waiting for a few last volunteers to arrive, the Park District coordinator Mary Eileen Sullivan, told us about the history of the preserve and the work that Friends of the Parks is doing to transform the preserve into a recreational area. The preserve consists of second-growth woods, a variety of wildflowers, and a large wetland area. Since 2007, Friends of the Parks has organized community members on a weekly basis to clear invasive species, replant native breeds, and attend outdoor education events in the preserve.

Shortly after 9:00am, Mary Eileen told our small group of volunteers that our project was to pull weeds and downed tree limbs from the overgrown trails to make them more accessible for visitors. We were provided with shovels, gardening tools, work gloves, and wheelbarrows, and we quickly spread out along the trail to get to work.

One volunteer working next to me was a young woman pursuing her doctorate degree and another was an elderly gentleman who drove in from the suburbs every week to volunteer in this preserve that his late wife loved spending time in. A small group of students from Muchin College Prep also joined the volunteer efforts later that morning. As we worked, we exchanged stories about our lives, our backgrounds, and what brought us to the trail that day.

The other volunteers and I spent most of our time using shovels and spades to pry stubborn weeds from the trails, piling them up, and hoisting them into wheelbarrows for disposal. After a couple hours and much to our relief, Mary Eileen presented us with a well-deserved feast of Cliff Bars and Gatorade to get though the rest of our shift.

Our workday ended around 1:00pm, and I was glad to rest my muscles and seek some shade. Even though I only contributed to a very small part of one very small trail, I felt good about spending my day off in the preserve instead of on my couch. For people like me who live in urban environments, I recommend contacting local park districts and outdoor gear retailers to learn more about opportunities to give back and truly fulfill the role of “nature lover.”

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