Nazareth students restore prairie
Nazareth Academy juniors Jenny Chlipala of Lyons, Taryn Kryza of Indian Head Park and Aleksandra Kiernoziak from Chicago take a break while volunteering in the fall at the Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester. | Photo courtesy of Nazareth Academy
Updated: December 30, 2012 6:06AM
LAGRANGE PARK — It helps to see the difference you’re making, Nazareth Academy students have found.
Since 2010, a growing contingent of student volunteers have spent fall and spring Saturday afternoons cutting out buckthorn from the Wolf Road Prairie in Westchester.
“When I started sophomore year, there were maybe 15 kids, and I was the only girl. Now we regularly get almost 30,” said Nazareth senior Katie Bialas.
“Buckthorn isn’t a bad plant, but as an invasive species, it chokes off more of the native plants, so we’re trying to bring them back,” Bialas said. “It throws off all of the ecosystems.”
Woody stems of the plant, popular as a hedge in Europe, range from the size of a dime to a small tree, so students use large clippers and hand saws, she explained.
“Their efforts have made a real difference on the prairie allowing native plants the chance to re-establish themselves,” said Rita McCabe, who coordinates volunteers for the Save the Prairie group.
Bialas agreed, noting student started removing buckthorn at the north end of the 80-acre prairie near the Prairie House Nature Center. There’s a noticeable difference in the view from the center’s back porch, she said.
“There’s always a darker line where the buckthorn is; it doesn’t look as pretty,” she said. “Over the years, that line has receded. Now it’s kind of a trek to get out to where the buckthorn is.”
Service is an important component of students’ education at Nazareth, said campus ministry director Rosemary Caragher. The Congregation of St. Joseph sisters, who sponsor the high school, and the Save the Prairie group share a common goal to care for the earth, she said.
Though the Saturday afternoon sessions are fulfilling a service requirement, Bialas said students are learning much from the program.
“There’s a lot of retired teachers who come to volunteer, and some have advanced degrees in all kinds of sciences,” she said. “Talking to them is as much fun as taking our frustrations out on the buckthorn.”
Bialas said the adults also are eager to share their knowledge of the prairie ecosystems, such as identifying small animal bones.
“Those are details you wouldn’t get if you came to do work by yourself,” she said. “It’s like getting a science and nature lesson every time you go.”
Bialas, who coordinates student volunteers with senior Tom Jaraczek of Willow Springs, said the prairie project offers a much different experience than tutoring or serving in a soup kitchen; it affords time for reflection and appreciating nature.
“Students can see the impact they have and how much the environment can benefit from something so small,” she said.