Illinois

Protecting Nature at Kankakee Sands

In the beginning, Mercedez Sherrod wasn’t so sure about her summer job restoring habitat at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands preserve in Pembroke, Illinois.

“The first week we were inside learning about the habitat and doing prep work, but then we started pulling sweet clover,” she said. “It’s a lot of work, and after the first few days, I was dreading going back to work on Monday!”

But as she spent more time in the preserve’s shady oak savannas—some of the best examples of this threatened habitat in the entire world—she began to enjoy learning about the native wildflowers, surveying the prairies for rare butterflies, and meeting different conservationists working at the site.

“By the third or fourth day, I got conditioned to it,” she explains. “Now I think it’s pretty cool, and I really loved the learning part of the program.”

Mercedez was one of four high school students who spent part of her summer at Kankakee Sands through the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC). YCC is a summer youth employment program that engages young people on national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and fish hatcheries. YCC’s mission is to help students develop an ethic of environmental stewardship and civic responsibility, all while providing employment opportunities. Each program is generally 8 to 10 weeks and members are paid for a 40-hour work week. The Pembroke-Hopkins Park YCC team, who worked at Kankakee Sands, natural areas owned by the Department of Natural Resources, and Rehoboth Mennonite Church, was sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mercedez was joined by Xavier Harris, Maribel Lopez, Jalen Winston, and Pasama Cole-Kweli, the crew’s leader. For all four students, who range from ages 15 – 17, this was their first summer job.

“My older siblings wanted me to get a job this summer and I didn’t want to work in a fast food restaurant,” Maribel said. “I love animals and I like being outside, so this was a perfect fit.”

As the summer progressed, the YCC crew began to see the impact their work had on local plants, wildlife in their own community. So did Pasama, a recent University of Tampa graduate who currently works as a research assistant at the Field Museum. Like the crew members, Pasama grew up in Pembroke, but guiding the YCC team on their restoration efforts gave her a new appreciation for the globally-rare oak savannas found throughout the community.

“I was surprised to learn just how rare some of the species are, because I grew up here and I see them all the time,” she said. “Hairy puccoon and ornate box turtles, for example, I see them everywhere. I didn’t realize how rare and important these species are. It’s empowering to recognize these plants and wildlife, and to see how much we all learned to identify in a very short time.”

And for Rob Littiken, the preserve manager who has spent the last 11 years of his career working to protect Kankakee Sands, there were new experiences to be had as well.

“We’ve worked with the Mighty Acorns program, which is for elementary school students, and had college-aged interns before,” he said, “but we’ve never worked with high school students, and had the opportunity to teach them about the preserve.”

By the end of the summer, it was clear the students had become the teachers. At the community’s annual Blueberry Festival at Rehoboth Church, Mercedez, Xavier, Maribel and Jalen gave presentations on the plants and wildlife they spent their summers protecting. They also led attendees on guided tours of the savanna.

“At the festival, I sat back and listened to them lead the savanna hikes,” Rob recalled. “I was amazed at how much they learned in just a few months.”
 

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