There are many ways to help protect the nature you love with Openlands. Whether you’re a teacher that wants to teach outside, a government agency that wants to improve your green space or a tree lover who wants to volunteer in their community, there are opportunities to connect with nature where you live.
Nestled into the north side of Chicago is one of the city’s best natural treasures, North Park Village Nature Center. The Nature Center is managed by the Chicago Park District, and thanks to the dedicated work of the volunteer network, this vibrant natural area is home to many different habitats, trails, and educational resources.
One of the Nature Center’s most popular programs is the annual collection of maple tree sap to produce maple syrup. For over 30 years, the Park District has offered the program to residents and volunteers to help them appreciate, care for, and learn about the site’s trees. But as these trees have aged, they’ve identified the need to plant new maples to continue this tradition.
To celebrate the Nature Center’s 40th anniversary, the Chicago Park District asked Openlands to assist with a planting of 40 sugar maples. On May 8, our Forestry Team assisted volunteers from North Park Village Nature Center and the Chicago Park District in the tree planting. Check out a video from the workday:
Since 2013, Openlands has worked with volunteers and the Chicago Park District to plant nearly 300 trees at North Park Village Nature Center as part of the Park District’s efforts to steward healthy habitats. It’s truly a spectacular community resource and we strongly encourage you to check it out.
We are looking for volunteers to help set-up and staff our Pop-Up Shop for the spring Native Tree & Plant Sale. If you’re looking to volunteer your time or you just have a passion for native plants, this is a great opportunity!
When, Where, and What:
Our Pop-Up Shop is located at 31610 N. Almond Road, Libertyville, IL 60048.
We need assistance setting up the Pop-Up Shop on May 14-16 and assistance with the sale on May 17-18 and May 24-25, from 9am-3pm.
Volunteers will help set up equipment, unload inventory, and prepare presale orders for pick-up.
Please note our Pop-Up shop will be in Lake County, IL and we want to be sure you’re comfortable with the following:
- Able to lift and carry up to 40 pounds repeatedly and push carts filled with trees and shrubs
- Be comfortable reading plant labels and order forms that use plants’ scientific/Latin names
- Willing to work outdoors, potentially during inclement weather
- Able to handle plants gently
To Sign Up:
If you’re interested in volunteering, contact LakeCounty@Openlands.org by Friday, May 10 so we can schedule your shift(s) and provide any additional details.
Join us on March 13 for Conservation Lobby Day in Springfield!
Conservationists are gathering in Springfield to advocate for Illinois’ environment. State legislators, members of the Pritzker Administration, and other advocates will discuss Illinois’ priorities related to conservation funding, endangered species protection, and other critical issues for our community.
Please select Openlands when registering and please contact us below to coordinate travel arrangements.
Option 1: Amtrak from Union Station in Chicago to Springfield ($48)
Return: 8:45pm (estimated)
Option 2: Drive a carpool. Please contact us for help coordinating carpools.
Where to meet in Springfield: IEC Headquarters, 520 E. Capitol Avenue, Springfield, IL 60633 — 10am
- 7am: Travel. Receive issue briefings and legislator info if traveling on train
- 10:30am: Arrive at IEC’s Springfield office for orientation and instructions
- 11am: Walk to Capitol, meet with legislators (401 S. 2nd Street)
- 1pm: Lunch provided at a local restaurant
- 2pm: Continue meeting with legislators, IDNR staff (TBD)
- 4:45pm: Depart Amtrak (100 N. 3rd Street)
- 8:45pm: Arrive back in Chicago
Itinerary is subject to minor changes.
For more information on Conservation Lobby Day, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wandering the trails at Ryerson Woods you may feel as if you’re exploring forests far from the Chicago suburbs. This oak woodland is home to some remnants of our region’s ecological past and it’s a great place to spend the day outside.
Located on the banks of the Des Plaines River in southern Lake County, the Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area is 565-acre preserve managed by the Lake County Forest Preserves. Ryerson Woods supports some of Illinois’ most pristine woodlands and several state threatened and endangered species. Two rare ecosystems — flatwoods and a floodplain forest — can be found here. Much of Ryerson Woods has been protected as an Illinois Nature Preserve.
Ryerson Woods makes a great day-trip for outdoor enthusiasts. The trails are well maintained and the area is pretty flat, so it won’t be your most strenuous hike, but there’s plenty to enjoy. And part of the beauty of Ryerson comes from its year-round accessibility: the trails are open to cross-country skiing in the winter (when there’s at least 4″ of snow) and it’s treasure to see in late October as the leaves turn. If you’re looking for somewhere new to explore or even if you’ve been before, make sure it’s on your list of places to get outside in our region.
Situated in the heart of Chicago’s north side is a peaceful retreat from the bustle of city life. North Park Village Nature Center is a 46-acre natural area and education resource, offering multiple recreation opportunities and a variety of programming from the Chicago Park District.
The nature center is a great snapshot of Illinois’ native landscapes. Here you can wander through wetlands and tallgrass, forests, prairies, and even an oak savanna. The change in ecosystems is plainly apparent as you follow the trail, and the interpretive signage throughout makes North Park Village Nature Center a superb educational resource. Check it out for hiking and walking, birding, or a short field trip with your family!
North Park Village Nature Center is open seven days a week from 10am-4pm.
On June 14, approximately 50 volunteers from BMO Harris Bank weathered blistering 90 degree heat to assist the school gardens at Hearst Elementary and the Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC). The neighboring schools on Chicago’s southwest side are home to schoolyard gardens supported by Openlands’ Building School Gardens program.
BMO Harris Bank is the Principal Sponsor of Building School Gardens, and through this program, approximately 33,000 students are directly impacted by the school gardens each day in addition to hundreds of teachers, parents, and community members.
“Volunteer workdays should be part of a company’s DNA,” said Bill Clarkin, Openlands Board Member and Vice President at BMO Harris Bank. “Being visible in a community is a two-way street, and as a business we have a responsibility to give back.”
This volunteer event was a part of the BMO Volunteer Day. All employees were encouraged to get out of the office and give back to their communities. Throughout the day, nearly 5,000 BMO Harris Bank employees assisted with projects across North America. In the Chicago area, more than 800 employees contributed over 2,200 hours of service to 17 projects.
Many volunteers helped with weeding, planting, and mulching, while Openlands’ staff assisted the volunteers in building raised plant beds and providing tree care. Other volunteers worked with the school staff to facilitate outdoor lessons for the students.
The school gardens at Hearst and AGC, which are planted with a mixture of annual and perennial plants, edible plants, and native plants, are used to connect students to the natural environment. This year in the garden, third graders practiced fractions using seed depth and square foot gardening; fourth graders applied their knowledge of erosion by planting cover crops; and middle schoolers explored and designed their own biomimicry, using patterns and concepts found in nature to create solutions to human problems. The garden is also an essential space where students can meditate, relax, and take breaks.
“It is always so great to have volunteers out in our garden space,” said Marney Coleman, a teacher on the garden team at Academy for Global Citizenship. “Not only does it really help with the heavy lifting as far as time and labor, but with all the district budget cuts this year, the impact of Openlands being able to bring supplies like compost, plants, and tools to do this kind of work has a tremendous impact.”
Even BMO Harris Bank’s newest commercial banking summer interns — and one of their partners, Chicago Blackhawks’ Tommy Hawk — joined the workday and helped make this possible. As a commitment to healthy communities, BMO Harris Bank and Chicago Blackhawks have a standing partnership to support schools in the Chicago area.
Marc Romito, Vice President of Commercial Banking at BMO Harris, explained the decision to volunteer with Openlands. “Partnering with Openlands is an example of leadership in giving back. We recognize Openlands as a partner in caring for communities, which is why Bill serves on the Board of Directors and why we volunteer with them.”
BMO Harris Bank has partnered with Openlands for their annual Volunteer Day on several past occasions. “Collectively, we give back and we connect with our communities no matter which position we hold,” said Clarkin. “It’s a great way to show we are part of the community and are helping the greater good.”
Many staff members and families commented that this was the best the garden had looked in a long time. Coleman expressed that a well-kept garden makes it much easier for students to learn outdoors, and helps build a sense of ownership, pride, and respect for the garden as a community space.
About BMO Harris Bank
BMO Harris Bank is committed to the principals of sustainable development and, in particular, to the belief that the quality of our lives improves when economic growth is achieved while respecting the environment. Our goal is to be one of the leading financial institutions in the area of Environmental Sustainability.
Openlands has discontinued our Corporate volunteer work days. If you are interested in learning other ways your workplace can get involved, please contact email@example.com or call 312.863.6261.
On Saturday, May 13, the students and families of Ms. Caponigro’s third grade class at Peck Elementary headed to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie for a Birds in my Neighborhood® field trip. Around 50 members of the Peck community spent the day spotting birds, searching for bison, and exploring the bunkerfields of Midewin.
Birds in my Neighborhood is taught by volunteers at Chicago Public Schools that have gardens created through Openlands Building School Gardens program. The goal is to acquaint students and teachers with the common birds in their garden, neighborhood, and city through in-class lessons and field trips. Each student is given a journal as an educational tool with prompts for writing about birds.
Ms. Caponigro’s third grade class learned about Chicago’s birds in the classroom, and had already completed two bird walks on school grounds and in Marquette Park. Saturday was an extra field trip, and one of the first Saturday field trips that Openlands has helped facilitate, and the result was spectacular.
Birds, Bison, and Bunkers
The field trip to Midewin started early at the Visitors Center where our friends from the Forest Service offered a brief overview of the area’s ecological and cultural history. Ms. Caponigro (Ms. Cap to her students) helped everyone in the group get acquainted with Midewin by translating the overview into Spanish.
“The Saturday field trip to Midewin was an amazing experience for our students and their families. To see such an expanse of nature and to learn about the history of the space along with identifying birds was something many of us will never forget,” explained Ms. Cap.
Openlands volunteers then led the students on a bird walk along the Explosives Road trail, and the families divided into two groups – one walk facilitated in Spanish and the other in English. Both students and families successfully spotted and identified many of the species using a bilingual guide provided by Forest Preserves of Cook County.
The third graders correctly identified a tremendous array of bird species including great blue herons, turkey vultures, eastern kingbirds, killdeer, blue jays, common yellowthroat, white-crowned sparrows, song sparrows, dickcissel, bobolinks, red-winged blackbirds, eastern meadowlarks, a scarlet tanager (pictured above), American goldfinches, red-tailed hawks, and more!
In the afternoon, the families had time to explore the retired US army ammunition bunkers that dot the Midewin landscape and after a lunch break, we headed up to Iron Bridge Trailhead in search of the bison herd. By the end of the day, most of the students were proclaiming it the best field trip ever.
Midewin is truly a breath-taking place to visit. At 19,000 acres, it is the largest open space in the Chicago region, it contains 22 miles of mixed use trails, and the biological diversity present is simply stunning. One student, speaking somewhat overwhelmed, expressed their disbelief not just at the number of bird species they saw, but that so many bird species even existed!
An Important Grassland Habitat
Massive open spaces like Midewin are vital for numerous reasons: they are home to some of Illinois’ last fragments of native prairie and they offer shelter to hundreds of species in need of conservation support. But research also demonstrates that positive experiences in nature with a trusted adult are an indicator of future environmental stewards, and this data drives our education work.
For Openlands, schools are the intersection of people and nature. Our Space to Grow partnership transforms CPS schoolyards into green campuses and gardens after seeking community input to address its needs, and schools are where we often gather communities for gardening workshops and to plant trees. Those trees and gardens become home to wildlife for students to learn about through Birds in my Neighborhood, and together, these communities foster new voices and new generations in the conservation movement.
When we forge new partnerships with schools, we listen to the needs of communities. For example, when Openlands began these Saturday field trips, we reached out to schools that we knew have an established interest in the nature of our region. Peck Elementary, located in Chicago’s West Elsdon neighborhood has been one of those inspiring schools. Peck was one of the first schools to sign up for Building School Gardens, and they were among the first schools to embrace a Birds in my Neighborhood curriculum. Ms. Cap has dozens of stories of her former students returning to her classroom to discuss birds, and her students have always appreciated the Birds in my Neighborhood class lessons.
“The bus ride back was buzzing with nature disscussions. Not to mention all the jealous comments on Monday from kids who didn’t attend,” said Ms. Cap.
Sharing these experiences with students demonstrates the value of conserved public lands, and furthers our mission to connect the residents of the Chicago region to the nature around them.
Peck’s field trip to Midewin was a tremendous success. Many thanks go out to our Birds in my Neighborhood volunteers, the Forest Service staff who helped with site orientation, and to the staff at the Midewin Visitors Center, who offered us their shaded outdoor lunchroom for our break.
Saturday field trips to Midewin are made possible by the generous support of BNSF Railway and US Forest Service – International Programs. And of course, we couldn’t make these field trips happen without the passionate support of teachers like Ms. Cap and our generous Openlands members.
Ready to discover Midewin for yourself? We have a few suggestions on where to start.
If you are interested in becoming a Birds in my Neighborhood volunteer, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. If you wish to support the program, please contact email@example.com or call 312.863.6261.
On April 18, Openlands Neighborhood Programs Director, Elvia Rodriguez Ochoa, was recognized for her successful completion of the Chicago Conservation Corps Leadership Certificate Program. The Chicago Conservation Corps (C3) recruits, trains, and supports a network of volunteers who work together to improve the quality of life in city neighborhoods and schools through environmental service projects. The training includes 20+ hours of sustainability-focused study and execution of a final project. Elvia chose to present two Spanish-language workshops on vermicomposting for families in Pilsen and Little Village. Participants were assisted in creating a home for the worms which they took home at the end of the workshops.
Elvia was one of three members of Environmentalists of Color (EOC) that were recognized that evening. EOC is an interdisciplinary network of leaders of color who are passionate about an array of critical environmental issues, ranging from habitat conservation to environmental justice.
“My goal in participating in these networks is to increase opportunities for Openlands to serve as a resource and to partner with groups across the Chicago area,” explains Elvia. “I especially like introducing people to Openlands and the variety of work that we do.”
Photo courtesy of El Paseo Community Garden in Pilsen (elpaseogarden.org)
Elvia leads Openlands’ longstanding focus on pollinator conservation in community gardens, which encourages gardeners to plant pollinator-friendly plants like common milkweed to support monarch butterflies. For instance, the Hoxie Prairie Garden on the southeast side is an excellent example of a pollinator-friendly habitat garden while El Paseo Community Garden in Pilsen combines both food growing and pollinator support.
One recent garden project Elvia has supported and which ties together her work with C3 is the Phoenix Garden in South Lawndale. Funded through a grant by the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and building on substantial community engagement facilitated by the US Forest Service, the Phoenix Garden will combine art, restoration, community gardens, and even high school class lessons.
The new garden, located at Little Village Lawndale High School, will facilitate unique student art projects, help the environmental science program develop outdoor lessons in restoration, and create habitat for monarchs. Elvia will support both Enlace, a community organization based in Little Village, and the North Lawndale Greening Committee as they take charge of summer stewardship at the garden. This partnership will engage neighbors in both the North and South Lawndale communities in a neighborhood-wide pollinator conservation. The US Forest Service has done tremendous work with El Valor, another community agency, to raise awareness of best practices to support monarchs, and the new garden will offer a place for residents to release any monarchs they raise in their household gardens into a healthy habitat at the school.
Space to Grow Garden at Morrill Elementary School
The communities around Little Village Lawndale High School have a history of championing community-sourced solutions for the challenges they face, and this garden is designed around leveraging community knowledge to achieve great conservation potential. “When Openlands facilitates dialogue between neighbors then sits down and listens to community needs, we achieve our most successful partnerships,” says Elvia.
Developing this natural area around the school into the Phoenix Garden started as an idea from residents and students. “I’m excited we can support connecting people to nature while helping Monarchs on the school grounds,” explains Elvia. “Whether with community gardens, Space to Grow, or Building School Gardens, when we engage people normally not included in these kinds of discussions, we find some of the best solutions for urban conservation.”