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Inside Kankakee Refuge Youth Conservation Corps

The first U.S. Youth Conservation Corps team for the new Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area is wrapping up eight weeks of work and education Friday under the sponsorship of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Four Pembroke Township high-schoolers are involved — Xavier Harris, 17; Mercedez Sherrod, 15; Maribel Lopez, 17; and Jalen Winston,16. Their supervisor is Pembroke resident Pasama Cole Kweli, a recent University of Tampa graduate who plans to go on to grad school in anthropology.

Youth Conservation Corps members with supervisor Pasama Cole Kweli fix fences at Mskoda Land and Water Preserve. Photo courtesy of Kankakee Daily-Journal.
Youth Conservation Corps members with supervisor Pasama Cole Kweli fix fences at Mskoda Land and Water Preserve. Photo courtesy of Kankakee Daily-Journal.

Established in 1970, the YCC "engages young people in meaningful work experiences on national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries while developing an ethic of environmental stewardship and civic responsibility," wrote Maia Sanders, one of two Nature Conservancy representatives who accompanied the group at work on Monday.

They have worked Mondays with Rob Littiken, about to mark his 11th anniversary as manager of The Nature Conservancy's Pembroke area preserves, which are the Illinois portion of the TNC's Kankakee Sands, which includes its larger, 8,000-acre prairie restoration in adjacent Indiana.

On Monday, the crew was at the former Mskoda Preserve on a multipurpose mission. With Littiken's supervision, they would repair two entrance gates that were damaged by vehicles of would-be gate crashers. They also would lead two young NC marketing and public relations staffers, their photographer and one old Daily Journal outdoors editor through the Mskoda woods and prairie. And later, they would do some removal of invasive plant species from the gorgeously blooming prairie that now covers about 260 acres of formerly farmed fields. That's nearly half of the square mile that was the Liebert Farm and Hunting Club until TNC acquired it as the first of its acquisitions in southeast Kankakee County's "world class" black oak savanna region.

Leading the way into the woods, the youngsters and Littiken identified wildflowers and other plants — whorled milkweed, blooming white and spindly close to the road; sumac, from which you can make tea (but not from poison sumac, please); horse mint, with pink leaves among the green ("You can put them in salads," Maribel said); goat's rue, "a nitrogen fixing legume" that adds fertility to the sandy soil, Littinken notes; and more flowers farther into the woods.

Although they all have grown up here, with Maribel the least local at four years, they didn't know the wonders of the black oak savannas here until their experience with the YCC — an employment program for high school students which mixes work with education.

They visited The Field Museum in Chicago. They did conservation or cleanup work in the new Kankakee National Wildlife Preserve south of Leesville, the adjacent Carl Becker State Nature Preserve and Friends of the Kankakee properties there. They worked at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, north of Wilmington, and the Loda Cemetery prairie -- a state nature preserve where a tiny portion of Illinois' once-dominant prairie grass never was plowed. They learned from scientists and conservationists at each stop.

Last Friday, they worked cleaning up Pembroke's Rehoboth Mennonite Church camp to make it safe for young campers and volunteered at Saturday's annual Rehoboth Blueberry Festival, conducting guided nature trail visits to TNC's nearby Hopkins Park Nature Preserve.

The eight-week experience has opened their eyes to the wonder of nature right at home in Pembroke.

"I think I've learned with the students," Pasama said. "I had some understanding of nature from my experience, but nature to me was birds, flowers, grass, trees," she said.

Now she knows the uniqueness of the Pembroke black oak habitat and that it is home to the ornate box turtle, a threatened species in Illinois that excites visiting natural scientists.

"We have to engage the young people," she said. "I see opportunity. We have an unusually successful program. Now it is up to them. What are we going to do?"

Their takeaway will include challenging work experience. "I had to trudge through grass as tall as me in the hot sun," Mercedez said. "I had like four ticks on me."

However, she said, "it was a great experience. I really like Carl Becker Nature Preserve (south of Leesville on Road 17000E)." She still wants to become a nurse or physical therapist, but thinks she still will do volunteer conservation work in the future, "but not for eight hours a day."

The work "definitely was a great experience," said Xavier. "It helps me to go in the woods. I was really scared of snakes. I was able to get over that."

By Robert Themer
Republished with permission from Kankakee Daily-Journal

Last updated: June 8, 2020