Earth Day is Over… What’s Next?

Litter pickup and other environmental volunteer opportunities near DuPage County.

Earth+Day+is+Over...+What%27s+Next%3F

Liam Sheriff, Staff Writer

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I decided to volunteer with the DuPage County Forest Preserve District to celebrate Earth Day (April 22). The district offered 15 volunteer events from April 19 to April 24 as a part of their Earth Week Volunteer Workdays program. From litter clean-up to restoration and beautification, the preserves welcomed DuPage County community members in honoring the planet’s natural lands. 

I signed up for the forest preserve “Pick-Me-Up,” the aptly named litter clean-up workday at McDowell Forest Preserve in Naperville. For two hours, a handful of other volunteers and I scavenged the grounds of the forest preserve in search of discarded plastics, garbage and waste. 

After covering three miles of trail down and back, I was surprised by the sheer volume of garbage scattered in such a small portion of the preserve. By the time I returned to the waste drop-off point in the parking lot of the preserve, I was able to collect an entire garbage bag worth of litter. 

Anna Bakker, the volunteer services liaison for the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, said large amounts of litter in natural areas are common these days. 

People might throw litter on the trails, and people driving down the road toss litter from their cars,” Bakker explained. “[The rangers] end up having to pick that up, but we only have so much staff to do that. That’s where the volunteers come in.

“There’s days that I go out with youth groups or school groups, and we could easily pick up 15-plus big garbage bags full of litter,” Bakker said. “Some portions of the forest preserve could even be done weekly.”

Cans, plastic wrappers, plastic bags, water bottles, birthday balloons and even a solitary abandoned shoe were among some of the materials I collected during the workday. This assortment of litter, however strange, is nothing new to Bakker, who often tries to make litter pickup as engaging as possible.

“We like to make games sometimes when we take people out because litter picking isn’t always the most extravagant thing,” Bakker said. “We make it a treasure hunt. ‘Who can find the weirdest trash?’”

As a volunteer liaison for the forest preserve, Bakker is responsible for a slew of duties throughout the district. Painting fences, harvesting natural prairie seeds, litter pickup, weeding, aiding in habitat restoration and helping out wherever help is needed are all parts of Bakker’s job description. Bakker is also tasked with leading volunteer workdays, like those offered during Earth Week. 

During much of the pandemic, however, the volunteer opportunities within the DuPage County Forest Preserve District were largely closed to the public. The Earth Week Volunteer Workdays were the first publicly accessible volunteer events since COVID-19 lockdowns first went into effect over a year ago.

“We used to offer more open events, and I think we’re really hoping to do that again, but right now with COVID we’re a little more restricted with it,” Bakker said. 

For those who are still interested in volunteering with the DuPage County Forest Preserve, it is possible to apply for a staff volunteer position. As part of the volunteer program at the forest preserve district, participants are trained and given the proper equipment to aid in a variety of volunteer opportunities. According to Bakker, schedules for the volunteer programs are flexible and allow for people of all backgrounds to be a part of the program. 

“People can give two hours a year to a program, or we have people who have more free time who give hours each day or a couple of times a week. So, we’re willing to work with people of all kinds,” Bakker explained. “We have volunteers in their youth and volunteers over 100 years old. I know I had one volunteer over the summer who was in his 90s.”

Volunteering doesn’t stop when Earth Day ends. The DuPage County Forest Preserve and other organizations within the greater DuPage County community offer a plethora of opportunities to fit virtually anyone’s schedule.  

“I wish that it wasn’t just Earth Day or Earth Week; I wish it was all year long,” Bakker said.  “Let’s spread out all the work. You could have hundreds or thousands of volunteers up one day, but if you could spread that out over the course of the year, you could get so much more done.

“Personally, I love the feeling when I volunteer, when I give back and help make my community a better place,” Bakker said. “In the world we live in today there’s a lot of big problems that we can’t always change. What you can do is make small changes on a local level and help improve the area that you live in.”

 

Here is a list of local organizations that offer volunteer opportunities:

The DuPage County Forest Preserve District

The DuPage County Forest Preserve District serves to conserve, educate and protect DuPage County’s public lands. The District hosts a plethora of volunteer positions throughout the county. For more information on the various DuPage County Forest Preserve District volunteer programs, visit: dupageforest.org/get-involved/volunteer

The Conservation Foundation

The Conservation Foundation was founded in 1972, and it serves as one of the largest non-profit conservation groups in DuPage, Kane, Kendall and Will Counties. Volunteer opportunities include natural area site maintenance, educational programs and harvesting organic agricultural products at local farms. To get involved, visit: theconservationfoundation.org/get-involved/volunteer

Sustain DuPage

Sustain DuPage is a grassroots organization that aims to enhance the relationship between humans and DuPage County’s varied ecosystems. Programs at Sustain DuPage range from sustainable community meal prep to rescuing native plants. For more information on the programs, visit: sustaindupage.com/projects

SCARCE

School & Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education, or SCARCE, is a non-profit organization that has been helping DuPage County become a more sustainable community through children’s educational and recycling programs for over 25 years. Volunteer events at SCARCE mostly revolve around the sorting of unused supplies to be reused or recycled. As of May 2, the volunteer opportunities are halted because of safety concerns over the pandemic. However, visit scarce.org/volunteer for more information regarding the volunteer programs moving forward.