It’s A W.I.N.: Building a “Forest of Health” through Community Partnerships

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee
    One clover, and a bee,
        And reverie.
The reverie alone will do,
    If the bees are few.

    -Emily Dickinson

It is no secret that the world’s pollinators are currently in trouble. From fruit bats to the rusty-patched bumblebee, many of our vital fuzzy friends are endangered due to habitat loss and human development. At Brushwood Center, we believe that creative thinking and collaborative community efforts have the power to help.

This summer, Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods launched the Forest of Health or Bosque de Salud youth program.  Forest of Health aimed to educate youth and families about the importance of pollinators and forests through community partnerships with Cool Learning Experience, Foss Park District, Nuestro Center, Roberti Community House, and the Round Lake Bilingual Parent Advisory Committee.

Participants in Brushwood Center’s PLT Certification Workshop

Forest of Health kicked off with a Project Learning Tree workshop.  Project Learning Tree (PLT) uses trees and forests as windows on the world to increase students’ understanding of the environment and actions they can take to conserve it. This workshop certified staff and volunteers from the five partner organizations in PLT’s curriculum, and provided tools to incorporate environmental education into formal and informal classroom settings.

In June, Brushwood Center followed up this training with site visits to each community partner. This was done in partnership with the innovative Filament Theatre group, a Chicago-based organization specializing in interactive performances for young audiences.  These site visits had two components: an exciting theater workshop led by Filament, and a visual arts activity led by Brushwood Center.  Teaching artists from Filament helped students embody native pollinators through music and movement-based exercises. As they explored the history of prairies in our state, students were challenged to think of solutions to declining pollinator populations. They broke up into teams to write small skits demonstrating an environmental issue, and their solution. The creativity and knowledge of the students was impossible to miss, as they intertwined sustainable concepts with goofy interpretive performances, bringing some much needed lightness to heavy topics.

Participants from Roberti Community House’s Junior Green Youth Farm building their city block.

In the visual arts activity, students took this problem-solving a step further. Using up-cycled cardboard and craft supplies from BASE (Brushwood Art Supply Exchange), students envisioned a city block with space for people and pollinators alike. They worked collaboratively to retro-fit “buildings” with green roofs and community resources, and reconstructed the “grounds” with nature-play areas and edible gardens.  Students not only created eco-friendly cityscapes, but also tackled difficult socioeconomic injustices in their creations.  Students from Roberti Community House’s Junior Green Youth Farm program, for example, included an adoption center with a nature play area, an underground public transit system to keep more cars off the road, and multi-unit subsidized housing for citizens in need.  With almost no instruction or rules from facilitators, the students became empowered by their complete control and ownership over this activity, and found equitable solutions to the woes of pollinators and people alike.

A “Pollinator Promise” that reads “I will help my grandma plant some flowers and I will leave water for hummingbirds”

On field trips to Brushwood Center, groups delved deeper into the world of pollinators and plants.  Students dissected flowers, exploring complex communication and reproductive systems. They engaged in PLT activities outside, where they learned more about human interdependence with nature, and ecosystem functionality. They also flexed their creativity again by creating pollinators out of up-cycled materials from BASE. Each pollinator was coupled with a “Pollinator Promise”, simple things that each student felt they could do to positively impact the pollinators in their communities, like not stepping on ants, and planting native flowers around their homes.

Families from Round Lake BPAC and their sustainable city block

Emily Dickinson’s poem about prairies and reverie advocates for the power of daydreaming to create something beautiful. There is immense power in giving yourself the space to think creatively and imagine a better world without limitations. This empowerment is what we aimed to do through our programming this summer. During these various trips and activities, these students not only became more familiar with the natural world; they became its caretakers. They took on roles of investigative problem-solvers and community leaders, working together to dream up creative and equitable ways to help all creatures in need.

Through the Forest of Health/Bosque de Salud program, Brushwood Center has reached over 400 students so far from Highwood, North Chicago, Round Lake, and Waukegan communities. The outreach and relationship building will continue with the program’s culminating event, the Forest of Health Family Festival, on September 14th from 10:00 am – 1:00 pm for the students and families from these participating organizations. The collaborative streets and creative pollinators made by students will be displayed as a testament to the intelligence, power, and creativity of Lake County’s young minds. As long as these kids have a say, our future will be bright.

This programming was made possible through funding by Abbott, Chicago Community Trust, Gorter Family Foundation, Lake County Health Department, Lumpkin Family Foundation, Morrison Family Foundation, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, and U.S. Forest Service International Program.

If you are interested in becoming a community partner or participating in Brushwood Center’s programming, contact Dani Abboud at