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Auburn students green up lagoons, increase the peace

More than 200 students from four schools spent a blustery Thursday morning in late April on a field trip to Winneconna Park in Auburn Gresham. But they weren’t there to simply enjoy the scenery around the picturesque lagoons; they came to green up and clean up the community—both its garbage and its violence.

Photo: Ben Levine

Students braved blustery conditions along the lagoons at Winneconna Park to collect and dispose of garbage.

Two days after a 14-year-old shot a 12-year-old in the community—which brought a storm of media attention—no reporters were on hand for the morning-long Project Re-New on April 28.

Students worked with supervisors from the neighborhood trash pickup service (and career development agency) Cleanslate to scour the area right down to used condoms and drug paraphernalia like hypodermic needles, which they received training on how to handle and dispose of properly.

“That was festering for years and hadn’t been touched,” said Carlos Nelson, executive director of the Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp., lead agency for both the New Communities Program and Elev8. “We all have to take ownership and go against what most people think about black kids in an urban setting—that they hate each other. We’re all trying to change the perception of what it means to be a black student on the South Side of Chicago.”

“We decided we would tackle that [potentially dangerous garbage] this year because a clean community is a safe community,” added Linda Johnson, business and project manager with GADC.

Photo: Ben Levine

Numerous partners from Auburn Gresham and around the city teamed with New Communities Program and Elev8 lead agency Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp.

In addition to Cleanslate, GADC brought in a wide array of partners to provide inspiration and demonstrations to the students, who hailed from Betty Shabazz International Charter School, Simeon Career Academy, Westcott Elementary School, and Perspectives Calumet Charter School, the local site for the Elev8 program. The high school students had the opportunity to earn service hours by attending.

GADC’s partners included Illinois State University, the Chicago Department of Environment, Urban Gateways, the Chicago Park District, Shedd Aquarium, the GAIA Movement, and Integrity Electronics Recycler. Mt. Hermon Missionary Baptist Church provided the staging area in its parking lot and, eventually, shelter in its basement as chilly rain chased everyone inside.

“You guys have made a lot of people proud,” Nelson told the newly energized students as they gathered around cafeteria tables and lowered their din of voices to listen. “How beautiful is it to see a room full of black kids working together? And not only working together, but cleaning up their community?” Alluding to the shooting earlier that week and others, he added, “We can’t stress enough the importance of loving ourselves and working against violence.”

Photo: Ben Levine

Sterling Bolden, assistant principal of Simeon Career Academy, addresses the students.

John Edwards, president of Men Against Violence—who puts on programming in Simeon, Westcott and other schools—urged the youth in the room to “try to come together, like you are now. All the violence needs to stop. … I’ve seen more young people going into the ground than ever before in my life.”

Westcott Principal Monique Dockery said students at her school have been coming together around environmental issues since Westcott started a “Go Green” club last year to promote education and participation. Among those who attended Project Re-New were students in a sixth-grade science class learning about the Earth.

“The kids have been cleaning around the community and visiting the various exhibitors to talk about recycling and going green,” Dockery said. “I hope that they will learn the importance of recycling in the community, and that they would act as ambassadors to encourage all their classmates to recycle.”

Sixth-grade science teacher Jackie McCune said she’s been focusing on how the Earth is the only planet in the solar system that sustains life and that its natural resources must therefore be used sustainably.

“They have a responsibility to take care of their home,” McCune said she’s taught them. “We’re not going to get another Earth. This is it. It starts with them.” She added: “They’re realizing that they do have that responsibility. They realize that they do have a part they can play. It’s opening their eyes.”

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