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Auburn students clean Winneconna lagoons

More than 100 middle and high school students from three South Side schools donned emerald green safety vests on April 23 to perform a thorough spring cleaning along the Winneconna Parkway lagoons in Auburn Gresham.

Photo: Ed Finkel

Students from Betty Shabazz International Charter take part in the Earth Day clean-up at 79th Street and Winneconna Parkway under the direction of Cleanslate volunteer Jeffrey Mensah.

The students from Simeon Career Academy, Betty Shabazz International Charter, and Perspectives Calumet Charter raked leaves, collected garbage and recyclables, learned teamwork, and communed with nature on a pleasantly cool, sunny spring morning the day after the official Earth Day.

The city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation provided rakes, trash bags and other equipment for the cleanup at 79th Street and Winneconna Parkway. Cleanslate, the neighborhood beautification service, hauled away the impressive results of the students’ garbage collection.

The Shabazz and Perspectives students came on a field trip, while the Simeon students volunteered on a day off school for the second annual Auburn Gresham Earth Day and Recycling Resource Fair, said Linda Johnson of Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corp. (GADC).

Photo: Ed Finkel

Simeon High School students do their part to keep the Earth clean and green.

“We did this to create an impact on the students … so they’re aware that a clean community is a safe community,” she said. “We want the children to realize their volunteering makes a huge difference.”

“We’re getting students from various schools working together around this common goal,” added Carlos Nelson, executive director of GADC. “When you observe these students working constructively together, it brings home not only the environment but other things – safety and security, appreciating who you are, loving yourself.”

The volunteers heard a prayer from Fr. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina’s Church and a few words from Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th) during a tree-planting ceremony in honor of Chicago Public Schools students slain by gun violence. Students tied green ribbons around the tree symbolizing those lost, including Simeon student Gregory Robinson, whom many of the volunteers from that school had known personally.

Attendees also picked up free passes to the Shedd Aquarium; learned about the eco-friendly iGo car-sharing service from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which hopes to expand into the community; and munched on healthy food, such as strawberries, apples and bananas, along with less healthy food – leftover Easter candy.

Photo: Ed Finkel

More than 100 students from three schools came out on a sunny, pleasantly cool early spring day.

“We’re making children more aware of their environment,” said Connie Daniels, president of the Winneconna Lakes Improvement Association, which partnered with GADC to bring about the Earth Day celebration. “If they don’t clean up, in the years to come, they won’t have this [beautiful scenery]. When you keep your community clean, your community cleans for you.”

Sterling Bolden, assistant principal of Simeon, said he sees the school as an extension of the Auburn Gresham community. “What we hope to get out of today is just an appreciation for respecting the ecosystem and giving back to the community,” he said, “helping students understand the importance of being Earth-friendly, the importance of recycling, the importance of keeping the community clean.”

Students who stopped their volunteer work to talk with a visitor seemed to be picking up on those teaching points and others.

Photo: Ed Finkel

The lagoons along Winneconna Parkway are a central reason why Auburn Gresham touts itself as Chicago's "best kept secret."

Simeon sophomore Darrius Phillips said he learned why mulching the base of growing trees is so important. Shabazz eighth-graders Marjorie Johnson and Malika Carson understand better why tossing garbage that’s not biodegradable harms the environment.

“If you keep throwing the wrong stuff into the garbage can, it doesn’t break down, and it causes chemicals to get into the air, which causes pollution,” Carson said. “It doesn’t go back into the Earth,” Johnson added.

Others saw themselves as healing the Earth’s past wounds. “We’re trying to clean up the mess that others left – the ones who don’t want to clean up the Earth or after themselves – for the kids, animals, and people who want to spend time outside,” said Simeon freshman Erin Williams.

“Today, we’re learning about how to take care of our Earth,” added Valencia Pringle, an eighth-grader at Perspectives Calumet. “We care about our community, and we want everybody to know that.”

Photo: Ed Finkel

Students tie green ribbons around a newly planted tree to symbolize the lives of Chicago Public Schools students lost to gun violence in the past year.

Cleanslate volunteers gaining the job training and career-related skills the program provides in 13 neighborhoods drew from their rapidly expanding knowledge base to teach the students how to beautify their community.

“I’ve been teaching them how to keep their community clean [and] helping them clean,” said Jeffrey Mensah.

For community volunteer Joe Burnett -- who grew up along the Winneconna lagoons, remembers fishing in them as a child, and is steeped in the area’s history -- the clean-up day smelled of rebirth. “There are a lot [of students] out there. They’ve done very well,” he said. “I’ve seen some of the [residents] looking out their windows, and this makes them feel good.”

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