Partner Perspectives are written by members of the Community Consulting Board through the Center for Civic Engagement. These articles provide examples of partnerships, best practices, and other insights from the viewpoint of Illinois State University’s community partners.
People often look at me quizzically when I say I work for the ParkLands Foundation. If I mention the Merwin Preserve, that might provide some recognition, but most locals do not realize that ParkLands exists and that we have 3,600 acres of natural land open to the public within a half-hour of Bloomington-Normal.
The ParkLands Foundation has been conserving natural lands on the Mackinaw River in McLean and Woodford Counties for 54 years and counting. Our mission is to preserve, protect, and ecologically restore natural lands in Mackinaw Valley watershed. These lands are dedicated primarily for preserving the biological diversity of native plants and wildlife, and secondarily for passive public recreation, environmental education, and scientific research. Scientific research guides our restoration policies, which has made our partnership with Illinois State University crucial to our perseverance over these 54 years.
As Dr. Mark Wyman, an Illinois State Historian, stated in his publication ParkLands: A History, “The Foundation and the University have had a mutually beneficial relationship through the years as numerous faculty and students have researched, studied, and provided volunteer assistance at ParkLands, while several faculty members have served as ParkLands officers.”
This long-standing partnership made ParkLands a perfect choice when the Alternative Breaks program in the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) at Illinois State University wanted to “keep it local” for its spring break trip in 2021. Though the program typically takes longer overnight trips, the group chose to stay closer to home due to coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions. Additionally, our properties provided an outdoor setting with plenty of room for everyone to distance. Our staff coordinated the effort with Annie Weaver, of CCE, and Amy Secretan, with Illinois State’s Honors Program. Weaver provided the initial contact with me, our administrative director, and our volunteer coordinator, Craig Lutes, and Secretan handled the final logistics.
The Alternative Breaks program regularly partners with Living Lands and Waters for local environmental work, making this a great fit with ParkLands’ mission. One of our main needs at ParkLands is invasive plant removal. Volunteers often remove these non-native plants by hand so that the native plants can establish themselves. Native plants are crucial to sustaining our native wildlife populations and preventing erosion and runoff into the river. This group has worked on clean water and invasive plant removal in the past, so they were familiar with the work and purpose for our invasive removal program.
As a nonprofit with a small staff (two part-time employees and one full-time Land Steward) we were unable to provide much support, but the group came well equipped. We had an MOU with ISU and CCE, which made the plans clear and straightforward. They provided their own water, lunch, and communicated logistics among themselves. We provided training and guidance on site including what plants they should remove and which areas to focus on and the students did the rest!
We had 25 students for three full days on our properties. Their main task was honeysuckle removal, but the group leaders made sure to make time for fun, such as a warm-up dance parties before the day began and several hikes to the river to enjoy the scenery.
Craig Lutes spent several hours with the group and had many positive remarks. He noticed how passionate the students were and that they were knowledgeable about conservation and wanted to make a difference. He was also impressed by how responsible, accountable, and hard-working the group was and how they required little supervision. He was also grateful that the program allowed the group to work all day (as opposed to our usual three- to four-hour workdays) but noted this did introduce the need for access to a bathroom. We also accommodated space for them to have small group reflection after working—this ranged from a nearby park pavilion to bales of straw on trailer.
As a small nonprofit this was an excellent partnership for ParkLands. In addition to some increased local outreach and some much-needed restoration work, we gained the added benefit of being introduced to a future summer intern through this program. Allyse Barnowski was selected as one of our summer interns and continued to bring her work ethic and enthusiasm to similar projects throughout the summer.
We feel confident that the partnership raised awareness of the need for ecological restoration in our area. As the students continue at ISU, we hope they will remain involved with ParkLands and share their knowledge with their peers. Taking a friend on a hike to the river is the best way to share the natural lands that ParkLands has protected in perpetuity, and perhaps these students may feel a little ownership of these lands, knowing that they did their part to protect them.