A wise botanist once advised me: “Don’t try to learn the names every wildflower at once, you’ll just overwhelm yourself. Stick to learning one or two each season, and you’ll be amazed at how quickly your knowledge will grow.”
I took that advice to heart, and this year, I added “flowering spurge” to the mental checklist of prairie natives I can recognize on sight. It’s colorful name and delicate white petals help, but what really commits it to my memory is the young high school student who pointed it out to me.
Xavier Harris was one of four youths who spent his summer protecting nature and preserving life at the Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands preserve in Illinois’ Pembroke Township. He, along with Maribel Lopez, Mercedez Sherrod, Jalen Winston, and crew leader Pasama Cole-Kweli, joined Preserve Manger Rob Littiken to fight invasive species, conduct butterfly surveys, repair damaged fences, and learn about the region’s incredible habitats 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 team, who worked at Kankakee Sands, natural areas owned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and Rehoboth Mennonite Church, was sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
All four of these students are from the local community and for each, 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.”
It wasn’t easy at first. During my visit, Mercedez, Xavier, Maribel, and Jalen recalled how they had to adjust to the physical labor of pulling sweet clover and other invasives, to being outside in the heat, to the nuisance of bugs.
“Every time I saw a tick, I got paranoid,” Maribel confided. “On one day, we were doing a butterfly survey and I had to walk through prairie plants as tall as me, and it was hard. But I knew I had to push through it—and I did.”
Over time, the job got easier, especially when they realized how much they were doing for the plants and wildlife right in their own community.
“I was nervous at first because this was my first job, but I really like helping the endangered plants,” Jalen said. “I do find myself wandering around my yard now, identifying the things I see, like sweet clover or common milkweed.”
By the end of the summer, all four of these students were experts in the flora and fauna of Kanakee Sands, which is home to some of the world’s best remaining oak savannas. That was clear on my visit. As Xavier and I walked through the savanna, he pointed out the different wildflowers he helped protect this summer.
“That’s day flower,” he said, showing me a small purple bloom that reminded me of spiderwort. “And that’s flowering spurge.”
“Flowering spurge?” I had to repeat it twice.
“Yep, that’s right,” he said with a grin.
His enthusiasm for the wildflowers was infectious. He shared with me that it stemmed from his desire to make a difference not just for nature, but people as well.
“I was excited to start this job because I really want to my help community,” he said.
The team’s hard work all summer did just that, culminating in their participation in the annual Blueberry Festival at Rehoboth Church, where they gave presentations on species of oak trees and led attendees on guided tours. At the event, it was clear the students had become the teachers.
“I just sat back and listened to them lead the savanna hikes, because they didn’t need any help,” recalled Rob. “I was amazed at how much they learned in just a few months.”
Now, these students are taking their knowledge with them. They are teaching friends, family members, neighbors, and visitors like me about the rare plants, wildlife, and habitats of Pembroke County.
I hope that when I visit again next year, they’ll help me add a new wildflower to my list.