With their dedicated instructor Tashina Ronae Lee looking on, students transplanted perennial flowers from adjacent vacant lots to create a centerpiece for the community park. Photo © The Nature Conservancy

Connect with Nature: A Transformative Tale

If there is one unifying principle in all of Nature, it’s that everything in Nature is connected in some way to everything else. At the Conservancy, a prime example of this same unifying principle is Connect with Nature. Now in its fourth year – with multiple chapters and programs participating from around the world – Connect with Nature can sincerely be touted as an outward-facing, transformative movement.

Earth Day 2017 in Birmingham, Alabama offers a sound example. Mere hours before the satellite March for Science, a vacant lot was transformed into a community park and future conservation science lab. Fueled by science, sweat equity and interconnectedness, more than two dozen volunteers participated in the project which has been deemed a signature venture for Woodlawn High School students in the Environmental Science Early College program, Class of 2020.

“Each student is currently in the ninth grade with budding interests in environmental science. With a hands-on approach, we’re teaching the fundamentals of transforming urban lands into natural spaces that will filter stormwater, invite pollinator insects and naturally clean the air,” said Urban Conservation Manager Francesca Gross. “Prior to this day in field, the students engaged in a project week of outdoor classroom exercises that outlined the importance of protecting open space, connecting people to nature and engaging communities in conservation practices.”

Urban Conservation Manager Francesca Gross explains how to choose the best plants for tough urban soils. Photo © The Nature Conservancy

Flurry of Activity

With a woodpecker diligently whacking at a dead tree in search of insects, the transformation of the vacant lot in the historic Woodlawn community began. High-energy 14 and 15 year olds tore into cardboard boxes to recycle as weed block. “The cardboard will keep weeds from growing under the wood mulch that will be spread on the walking trail,” Gross explained amidst the flurry of activity. Activities that included the transfer of lily bulbs, shrubs and trees being planted, new friends being made and the removal of rubbish. “Look what I found,” grinned 15-year-old Kendall Hines as he dangled a patch of carpet from an orange-handle trash picker. “I found piles of clothes tucked into a hole too,” said Hines. But, the most unique finds were intangible.

“While not exactly quantifiable, each student made this project, on a Saturday, a priority. Some volunteers walked here, others took the bus or ‘found a ride’ and that’s commitment,” shared Gross. “Revitalizing vacant lots serves as a visual cue that the neighborhood is still viable and beautiful in a remarkable way. When you see flowers and vines blooming that students from the high school selected and planted, it’s quite an impact.”

During lunch, the volunteers – still full of energy – shared ideas of how they might get additional classmates involved. Determined, they even created a mental list before a lively game of tetherball.

All in! We found places where water naturally collects to install small raingardens. Photo © The Nature Conservancy

A nine-minute walk from Woodlawn High School, volunteers will return to the community park during lab hours to install a sculpture, paint a wooden fence and hang bird houses.

Synergistic Partnership

“From researching plants for the best shade trees, the volunteers invest sweat equity into each vacant lot we transform into an attractive, low-maintenance green space. Blight has been replaced by rain and pollinator gardens, prairie grasslands, additional trees and now a community park,” said Roger W. Mangham, director of The Nature Conservancy in Alabama.

The community park marks the Conservancy’s fifth long-term project in Woodlawn. “All the long-term projects the Conservancy designs in our community complement the mission of Woodlawn Foundation, and we are grateful for such a synergistic partnership,” said Woodlawn Foundation Executive Director Sally Mackin. The Foundation is a comprehensive collaboration of partners committed to breaking the cycle of poverty in the area.

A signature venture for Woodlawn High School students in the Environmental Science Early College program, Class of 2020, these ninth graders are the future of conservation. Photo © The Nature Conservancy

The Conservancy is mentoring Woodlawn High School students in the Environmental Science Early College program on the benefits of low-impact design for vacant land in their neighborhood to build environmental career pathways. According to the US Department of Labor, demand for environmental specialists is expected to grow by 11% between 2014-2024 – faster than average – and just four years after these students are slated to graduate.

In its fourth year, Connect With Nature is a volunteer and community outreach campaign engaging communities, individuals and companies in nature related activities. This spring, The Nature Conservancy will hold over 220 events to encourage people to get outdoors, get involved in their communities and take meaningful steps to help protect and preserve nature. If you have questions about Connect With Nature, please contact LaTresse Snead at lsnead@tnc.org.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.

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